The digital skills shortage: New thinking needed!

I’ve written this post from a Scottish perspective and specifically discuss the digital skills shortage in Scotland. However, I think that the problem is much wider, government responses everywhere are equally unimaginative and that innovative approaches to continuous adult education are required across the world.

It is generally accepted that there is a worldwide shortage of people with ‘digital skills’ . Specifically in Scotland, it has been suggested that, in a tech sector that employs about 84, 000 people, there is a requirement for about 11, 000 more people in the near future. Whether or not this number is accurate I don’t know  (I suspect it’s a bit high) but for sure we need more people who are trained to work in the tech industries.

However, in Scotland and I think elsewhere in the world, both the government and industry response to this shortage has been profoundly unimaginative and based on ill-informed guesswork rather than an analysis of the real requirements of companies and a ‘joined up’ view of skills education.

One problem that I have with the current response is that the term ‘digital skills’ is bandied about without ever really saying what this means. It is generally taken  that ‘digital skills’ equates to programming. However, if we look at ‘digital skills’ as a whole, there’s a lot more to it than simply programming. What is the balance of requirements for people with conventional programming skills (e.g. Java), real-time systems engineering (which needs hardware as well as software understanding), web development, digital marketing, systems architecture, etc.? Maybe such information exists (I haven’t seen it) but if it does, those who simply equate digital skills and programming don’t seem to have paid much attention to it.

The most visible response of governments to the ‘skills shortage’ is to promote the teaching of computer science in schools. This has led to a new computer science curriculum and most recently in Scotland, an announcement that a new fund is to be made available to widen access to extracurricular technology activities.  As a software engineer, both of these seem to me to be absolutely good things – the more young people that understand computers and how to program the better.  However, I do not believe for one minute this will make much difference to the digital skills shortage.

I don’t know what it’s like in other countries but the Scottish government has NOT introduced any programmes to encourage computer science graduates into teaching; teachers’ salaries have been effectively frozen for the past  years and fall far behind the salaries that CS graduates can attract in industry.  Why should a graduate spend another year in training for a starting salary that is 25% or more less than they can immediately after graduation.

So – who will teach computer science in schools? Undoubtedly, existing teachers who will do their best but who will have, at best, some in-service CS training and nothing like the knowledge of a computer science graduate.  We could see a situation where poorly-trained teachers put off more students than they inspire.

In Scotland, Scottish university students do not pay fees but the number of local students funded by the government is capped. There has been no significant increase in the number of places in computer science degrees for Scottish students (in spite of a rise in applications) so, if the school initiatives enthuse students, where are they to go?  It’s not enough to stimulate new applications, applicants need to believe that there will be a university place for them.

Across the world, there is a reluctance for young women to sign up for computer science degrees. I’ve written before about this problem and I believe that this is the most pressing issue that we should be trying to address.  The usual response to this problem seems to be simply promoting role models for women to encourage more women into the tech industry. This can’t do any harm but has so far had very little effect and I doubt if it really will make much difference. What could make a difference is making it easier for students who start in some other discipline to switch to computer science and to encourage a wider range of ‘joint degrees’ where students study CS alongside some other subject. But this needs dedicated funding that will encourage universities to provide such courses and encourage women to take them.

All of this exemplifies the lack of joined up thinking in governments who simply do not understand that education has to be looked at as a whole; tinkering with one bit without considering the big picture is unlikely to have the effects desired.

Furthermore, education is not just a stage in life between the ages of 4 and 22. If we are to adapt to a rapidly changing world, education HAS to be a lifelong process with opportunities for people to learn new skills throughout their career.

In this respect, I had some hope that the Scottish Government might just understand the problem when they announced £6.6 million pounds of funding in 2014 to help tackle the digital skills shortage.  This was an opportunity to develop an imaginative response to the skills shortage but, sadly, it was not to be. What did we get? Another coding bootcamp, that offers intensive courses to train about 150 people per year to develop web applications in Ruby.  Hardly an innovative or imaginative approach.

Maybe this will address the market need for Ruby programmers? But what about the systems engineering skills that manufacturing companies need, what about mainstream software development, what about maintaining the millions of lines of existing code, which is a nightmare for all companies?  We have missed an opportunity to understand what skills (not just programming) that are really required by industry and to develop a world-leading approach to meet these requirements.

Effective adult education needs to recognise that education and work go together.  A full-time process for adult education is neither practical nor effective. To make a real difference to the number of people with digital skills, we need a different approach. We need to innovate and to provide a vehicle that blends electronically-mediated and face-to-face learning to allow ‘continuous’ education’ – to bring people into the tech industry and to update the skills of people already there.

While I applaud the efforts to widen the teaching of computer science in schools, I think that industry and government are kidding themselves if they believe that this will solve the digital skills shortage. We need a committed programme of adult education to encourage and support people who want to develop new skills. We need to abandon the idiotic notion that only young people can program and provide opportunities for all ages to learn digital skills. Industry needs to develop approaches to recruitment based on testing the skills of applicants and not simply taking the easy way out of rejecting those without formal qualifications.

The digital skills shortage is a short-term problem but the solutions we need for this problem will have longer-term applicability.  The potential of AI to destroy jobs has, in my view, been over-hyped but, for sure, AI-driven automation will lead to major changes in the professional jobs market. We should be planning for re-education now not waiting for the problem to happen.

We need a new approach to digital skills education – the old ways neither work well nor scale to the number of people who we need and who will want tech education in the future.  I don’t have easy answers to the problem but I am convinced that the place to start looking is in the open-source movement.  Open source has revolutionised software and I think that there is the same potential for ‘open-source, continuous education’. This is the only practical way of addressing the short-term problems of a digital skills shortage and a longer term goal of reskilling people as traditional jobs are automated.

I’ll write more about this in future posts.

2 thoughts on “The digital skills shortage: New thinking needed!

  • June 3, 2016 at 9:13 am
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    One thing we do know is that MOOCs (at least as they currently stand) are not the answer, even though can be considered as “open-source, continuous education”.

    The BCS recently said that it “… has a duty under our Royal Charter to establish and maintain standards in computing education for the benefit of society.” when responding to the recent Shadbolt report about accreditation of CS courses (http://www.bcs.org/content/conWebDoc/55942). This is mainly addressing university degrees, but we need more than this. We need a module-based approach where people can dip in and out as time (and motivation) allows–this reminds me of the Open University approach… maybe that could be used as a model? We need some assurance of the quality of the modules so that people can trust that the content. Most importantly we need support for the people taking the modules (e.g., mentoring schemes).

    I know that several Scottish companies have started working with FE colleges to develop modern apprenticeships, and companies like QA offer a range of apprenticeships–IT, Digital Marketing, and Software and Web Development (although they are targeted at a younger audience). This seems a good idea to me: the apprentices get paid, and get two year’s work experience, while the companies get to see if the apprentice is a good fit for them.

    To solve the basic problem though, the first thing we need is an acknowledgement of the nature and scale of the problem, and the fact that any solution is going to require commitment from government, learned societies, industry and academia. The second thing we need to do is find out the skills that these new jobs require. The third thing is that we need to talk to people who might be interested in filling those jobs, to understand their constraints and their motivations. Then we can start to think about how to put together the appropriate training and education packages to try to solve the problem.

    Post script: Interestingly, the recent report on The Digital Powerhouse didn’t really address (or understand?) the problem. They noted that “The UK’s digital economy is expected to require an extra 760,00 digital workers between 2015 and 2020” (p.11) but they seem to think that things like coding in schools, coding boot camps, and the universities will solve the problem. http://technorthhq.com/digital-powerhouse/

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