Has the tech skills gap been forgotten?

Group editor Maggie Holland: Back to school for the lot of them

Without wishing to be at all ageist, it's clearly a long time since many of our political leaders were in the education system. And, let's be honest, many in the current regime, probably weren't in the kind of classrooms where you had one BBC computer shared by 30 kids.

Political leaders can only be truly successful if they're in touch with the real world. They need to empathise with situations and to do that, in this instance, they need to go back to the classroom rather than hypothesising or waving papers in the back benches.

As we all know, children ask the most honest questions to the point of embarrassment sometimes. They have no filter; they tell it like it is. What would Theresa May say to a six-year-old who asks her what was the last app she downloaded or what she thinks of two-factor authentication (or ask her colleague Amber Rudd about encryption use cases)?

Until those in our political system with the power to invest in STEM in grassroots education all the way up to university and beyond understand the gaps by being confronted with them full on, we'll always be caught in a vicious circle. Innovation and industry will suffer, the potential of many children and young adults won't be fulfilled while our leaders look down on them from their ivory tower, secured by biometrics and other technological advances they don't quite understand.

Staff writer Zach Marzouk: The root of the problem

It's almost certain for three events to occur each week: you will read a new disheartening update to Brexit update on the news, a new eyebrow-raising Twitter post will be made by the President of the US, and an organisation willsuffer a data breach because its security wasn't good enough.

Amid all this, new policies on STEM training need to be enacted quickly in order to give Britain's future more of a chance to get back on its feet. These skills are needed to close the UK's widening skills gap, which is estimated to result in 142,000 job vacancies by 2023.

The onus can't be on organisations like the Bloodhound Project, which is helping to foster STEM skills as it attempts to break the land speed record by making all the data available for students around the world to use.

The jump we are about to experience in technology is fast approaching, which means STEM skills will be more important than ever. Will politicians see that STEM and Brexit are more inextricably linked than they might think? Or will our parliament's fixed five year terms prevent us from looking to the future and creating a long-term STEM skills strategy?

Staff writer Dale Walker: We need leaders who know what they're talking about

The first six months of 2017 helped demonstrate the complete disconnect between politicians in Westminster and the realities of a digital economy. A series of cyber-attacks against our public services seemed to take our government by surprise and while it attempted to spread the idea that we should be shocked by the gall of criminals targeting our beloved NHS, the underlying truth was that it was woefully underprepared.

Yet following the London Bridge terrorist attack in March, that naivety turned to outright ignorance when Amber Rudd argued that end-to-end encryption should be scrappedand claimed technology companies using it were creating safe havens for terrorists. This was from the same person who wanted a public consultation on the correct use of hashtags.

In many ways, the political class now has the look of an aging grandparent struggling to work a smart TV ignoring the need to modernise until it's forced to. When it finally does decide to show an interest, it sticks its oar in so spectacularly that the resulting mess only proves so show how far removed Westminster is from society. Our leaders seem to have little clue what technology is half the time, let alone what to do about educating the next generation.

Although Michael Gove claimed during the EU referendum last year the country "has had enough of experts", where our digital economy is concerned we've never had them where it mattered. Nesta statistics published in May showed that only 9% of parliamentary candidates held an academic background in STEM related subjects, with the majority having studied law or politics. It's also a sad truth that STEM is under-represented in parliamentary debates, with topics like cyber security and encryption appearing only 31 times - compared to 472 debates about Brexit.

For our elected leaders to make any constructive progress to tackle the skills gap, they need to know what they are talking about - and for that, we need more scientists standing for government. Failing that, teaching Amber Rudd how to use hashtags would be a step in the right direction.

Deputy editor Joe Curtis: A taxing problem

The tech skills gap is an increasingly critical issue that the entire world is facing. Based on the gulf between demand and supply, the tech skills gap in Europe alonecould reach 900,000 by 2020, according to the EU.

Meanwhile, the BCS has sounded the alarm over a "worrying" drop in take-up of the Computing GCSE, predicting student numbers to halve by 2020.

It's no wonder tech giants are taking matters into their own hands. Amazon's re:Start scheme seeks to train 1,000 disadvantaged people and ex-military personnel in the ways of IT, whileGoogle will put on a Summer of Skills programme focusing on seaside towns.

All these are laudable initiatives and technology giants lending their expertise to government digital initiatives is a necessary step to arm people with the right digital skills, despite the chequered past of public sector projects delivered by the private sector.

But what if these behemoths actually paid the right amount of tax? Amazon paid just 12 million in UK tax last year for taking 5.3 billion in sales from UK online shoppers via its Luxembourg base, according to the Guardian.

Meanwhile, as chancellor, George Osborne proudly touted Google's 130 million tax bill in January 2016 on a decade of profits as a "major success", compared to Labour's claim that it amounted to an effective tax rate of 3%, versus the corporate tax rate of 20%.

While this is great for short term profits, it's dreadful for the future of the country. Without the tax these firms' UK profits generate, the UK has less money to fund education programmes or quality teaching, or measures to bring children from all backgrounds into studying STEM subjects. That means fewer skilled workers for these companies, and the tech industry, in the long run.

Amazon has just opened a UK headquarters and Google is building a mega-campus in Kings Cross, just as Britain exits the EU, potentially squandering our access to skilled foreign workers. If the big tech companies are really committed to closing the skills gap, they should pay their fair share.

Features editor Jane McCallion: we need action, not words

Politicians talk the talk about the importance of STEM, but as far as I can see there's very little action to back it up. Initiatives abound, funding is pledged, yet little progress is being made and tech is still seen as a nerdy thing for nerds.

This isn't just about skills any more, it's about a fundamental culture shift. STEM careers should become aspirational for school children in the same way being an astronaut was during the Space Race, with an interest in maths, computing and science normalised and encouraged. Significant funding must be made available, as must teachers with the appropriate knowledge to help lead this revolution (this ties into a lot of other hot button political issues that we sadly don't have time for here). Because without the relevant skills-base among the people who live here, our economy will fall drastically behind in the coming years.

That's not to say we should abandon the humanities, though far from it. If we're constantly banging on about the problems of siloed thinking, we can't then argue for the importance of STEM education in the absence of everything else. The future of technology, business and society is uncertain; we need a generation of polymaths to make the most of it.


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