The ‘disconnect’ between our ICT industry and schools

A leading cloud, web and e-commerce development firm has highlighted a ‘disconnect’ between what is being taught in schools, colleges and universities and the skills demanded by Scotland’s ICT industry.

Cameron Leask, managing director of the St Mary’s Street located company, which employs 10 staff and is an accredited Amazon Web Services provider, said he gained the insight at a recent event hosted in the capital.

The event, run by the Scottish Funding Council, saw some discussion round the table about what a business needs from the students that are exiting colleges and universities today.

“There definitely was a disconnect between what we think we need and what the educators felt they should be providing. It’s a superfast moving environment,” said Leask.

Leask also serves as a STEM (Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering) ambassador for STEMnet, an organisation whose volunteers go into schools to show young people how those disciplines can be applied in the real world. In this role he has observed that careers in information technology aren’t being seen as careers or sciences.

“They’re being seen as a skill that you need in order to do other stuff,” he added.  “So there’s an interpretation of IT and computing as word processing skills and Excel skills. But actually how do those tools get written in the first place? .  There are many initiatives by the banks to get kids involved in coding – it would be great if those were more widespread in schools.”

And he said the problem is currently reverberating around the industry in Scotland, with too many job vacancies and not enough qualified people able to fill them. Describing it as a “long-term challenge”, he added: “We’re screaming for people, we’re all screaming for people. It’s not just us working in the computing industry; there are businesses in pretty much every industry screaming for technologists.”

One graduate Leask recently interviewed had been put forward for 11 different jobs by three separate recruitment agents, such is the demand for talented young developers.

He added: “It was overwhelming, how do you choose between 11 different options? That’s the nature of the competition and it’s a challenge for recruitment at the moment.”

In September ScotlandIS – the trade body for the ICT industry – will open the doors to Codeclan, a purpose-built modern academy to teach young people the core skills of coding. It hopes to teach digital skills to over 600 students, making them work ready, in its first three years but there is still some way to go to meet the 11,000 new entrants the industry requires every year just to stand still. Currently, less than half that number comes from traditional routes such as Scotland’s colleges, universities and apprenticeships.

“There was a time when the advice to kids was ‘get a trade’.  Technology is the trade of the 21st century,” Leask adds.

“And it’s important that as a business, as a responsible employer, we play our part, to make sure we’re doing what we can to bring through the next generation of developers.”

To that extent Leask – who will be a launch partner of Codeclan – has developed an internship programme for his company and hopes also to roll out a graduate trainee scheme by next year.

He also wishes to see closer industry links with academia in Scotland and praises the likes of Bill Buchanan at Napier University for his “high visibility” in the market, but says schools should try to encourage pupils’ interest in computing at an early age.

“If our school students don’t see computing as a potential career then it doesn’t matter how much time we spend working with the colleges and the universities if the school students don’t appear to populate the courses. But that’s a really long-term game, it’s not an instant solution to what is an instant, right here, right now problem.”