Developing the skills to keep us innovating

We are experiencing a technological revolution that is fundamentally altering the way we live, work, and communicate. The pace of change and disruption brought by this ‘fourth industrial revolution’ – the digital revolution – has no historical precedent, it is truly exponential.

In its scale, reach, and complexity, the digital revolution is unlike anything that has gone before. No part of the globe, society or industry remains untouched. And Scotland is no different – it’s technology sector is thriving.

In the past five years, there has been a 43% rise in the number of technology businesses in Scotland – the fastest growth in the UK (31%) outside London – with 3,000 new businesses founded. It is estimated that Scotland will need 11,000 new tech employees each year for the next five years, with 83% of all employers, regardless of sector, seeking to grow tech and digital staff numbers in next 12 months.

However, keeping apace with this growth is not without its challenges. In line with the rest of the UK, one of the biggest issues we face is finding the people with the right skills to keep us innovating. UK Government statistics confirm that 72% of large companies and 49% of SMEs are suffering from a tech skills gap right now.

Scotland has an ageing tech workforce, suffers from a shocking gender imbalance, and worryingly is struggling to attract young people to consider digital and tech as a career. According to projections by Deloitte, Scotland is set to lose £9bn in potential gains over the next 15 years if it doesn’t adopt a visionary digital action plan and address these issues head on.

We are currently guilty of failing our young people and we are denying them one of the greatest gifts that we can bestow: opportunity. We are anchoring them at the wrong end of the technology food chain and in doing so we are damaging the economic and social prospects of our nation.

So is it all doom and gloom? Have we really created a booming sector and somehow overlooked the development of the talent pipeline to fuel its continued growth?

Well yes, the facts can’t be disputed, but on the other hand, what is now encouraging and apparent is that we (‘we’ being government, education and industry) have finally recognised that there is a real issue to be addressed and that the time for rhetoric and spin is over and we now need action.

Over the past two years and since the publication of the tech sector Skills Investment Plan by Skills Development Scotland, the country has witnessed some real progress and managed some positive gains.

The formal education system has recognised that computing science and digital subjects are vital and are now being placed at the heart of the curriculum, more specialist teachers are being recruited and classrooms are being upgraded with latest technology. But it’s going to take time to turn it around.

And finally, we have at last woken up to the fact that we need to capture the hearts and minds of our young people long before they are in a position to select their subject choices at S3.

Today’s children are the first generation for whom technology is omnipresent – affecting every element of their lives from the moment they were born. Computational thinking as a skill has never been more needed and we’re seeing recognition of this reflected in preschool and primary services providing children with educational tools to encourage the development of computer and coding skills.

Another hugely positive development has been the acceptance of the importance of extracurricular activities to complement, in some cases filling a void, formal school activity. Presenting an opportunity to engage with young people who might not ordinarily have the chance or the inclination.

The Digital Xtra Fund was created in May this year by the Scottish Government, which contributed £400,000 to fund extracurricular computing science and digital activities for under 16s across Scotland.

Applicants to the fund must demonstrate that will be able to deliver activities which increase the number of young people taking part in computing and digital related activities across Scotland, improve participation of girls and underrepresented groups, dispel negative perceptions about computing activities, promote digital as an attractive career path and result in more young people selecting computing science related courses in school and further education.

In its first year the fund has supported a wide range of innovative projects that will directly reach over 15,000 young people across the country. Funded projects have included the training of public library employees to deliver Code Clubs to young people across 28 of the 32 Local Authority Library Services and the extension of the Apps for Good programme across Scotland. Apps for Good will now engage 2,500 young people and provide them with the opportunity to design, build, market and launch apps to solve problems in their communities.

It has to be recognised that what we are trying to achieve here is as much a cultural shift as it is simply a skills rebalance but we have at least started the journey. And it is a journey.

And if we are to continue on an upward path then it is essential that we (government, education, industry) don’t sit back and wait for others to solve the problems. We all have the same goal and we will achieve it if we pool resources and work together.

Phil Worms is computing and schools lead at ScotlandIS and was a speaker at EduTech 2016.