TechMunch: The tech skills and innovation conundrum

At a recent team meeting, my colleagues and I took turns in nominating life-changing technologies. They varied from stackable farms and health sensors to new types of public transport and even e-commerce. While they might have sounded like the stuff of science fiction, if you step back and consider where we’ve come in the past ten years, these new technologies seem totally achievable. The smartphone only launched ten years ago, 3D printers came to the market just five years ago and we’ve only been talking about driverless cars for the past three.

It’s fantastic to witness this torrent of innovation, but I have to admit that I do have some concerns about its impact. In a time where we’re already seeing greater inequality in society than in the previous fifty years, what does it mean for world of work that our children will face?

In fact according to the World Economic Forum sixty-five percent of tomorrow’s jobs don’t yet exist and will have specs we can hardly imagine. So, how can we ensure that everyone in the UK is able reap the benefits of such fast-paced tech innovation?

On the face of it, the UK is very well placed to do this: the most recent Global Innovation Index ranks Great Britain as the third most innovative country in the world. When you see some of the new tech being developed here, this isn’t hard to believe.

However, the Index also shows that the UK scores considerably lower when it comes to skills and education. Despite having some of the top universities in the world for research and a thriving tech sector, the average worker doesn’t necessarily have the right digital skills. This suggests that there’s a lot of work to do to ensure our children are future-proofed in terms of the skills they need to benefit from tech innovation.  The small percentages of students taking GCSE and A-level computing also point to this.

Our sector, in fact the whole UK economy, is already in the midst of a digital skills crisis. And the increasing pace of innovation is only exacerbating this. By 2020 there will be 750,000 thousand new digital jobs in the UK.  We need to ensure we have the skilled talent to fill these roles. Improving the digital skills of today’s children – the future workforce – and widening the net of talent joining the tech industry is more important than ever.

The good news is that we are seeing some movement here. Recent policy announcements, from the Modern Industrial Strategy to the Digital Strategy and even the latest Queen’s speech, have included some focus on digital skills. Computing has been a compulsory part of the curriculum for 5-14 year olds for the past two years now. Many large tech companies offer apprenticeships and other training schemes for young people to learn relevant digital skills and we’re seeing a boom in kids coding clubs.

However, the tech industry is still suffering from an image problem. Certainly, there are companies that appear glamorous to work for: the Googles, Facebooks and Apples of the world, or equally the fast moving, disruptors like Lyft, Airbnb and Spotify. But if you ask most teenagers, particularly girls, if they would be interested in a job as a programmer or engineer the answer is almost always ‘no-way.’ Why? Because they perceive the work as boring, uncreative and ‘uncool.’ And many feel their maths isn’t good enough.

However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Digital jobs, including coding, offer highly creative, problem solving work and with today’s tools like APIs, you don’t need great technical or mathematical skills to start. Unfortunately, most kids just don’t know this.

I see a real opportunity for those of us who work in the tech industry change that. Forget brand evangelism, we should all be doing tech skills evangelism. It’s what will help change perceptions and attract more talent. What’s more, if we fail to cultivate a robust talent pipeline, it isn’t just the tech sector that suffers. There will be a broader knock-on effect: let’s not forget the UK has the largest digital economy as a percentage of GDP among the G20.

With technology at the heart of everything, it’s digital literacy and skills that are critical to making sure our children are ready for what’s next.

It is time to act now.

Deborah Nazareth, Director, Technology