Mind The Gap - The Landing’s Jon Corner suggests that schools and colleges across the UK need to do more than ‘coding catch-up’ to begin to close the perceived “digital skills gap”.

24 December 2015 - 9:42am

There’s a well-documented digital and tech skills gap in Manchester between the needs and opportunities of its growing tech sector and the available talent pool in the region. That’s one of the problems of a successful economy, and there’s no doubting that Manchester will continue to grow despite the challenges. 

But that higher level ‘market-metric’ gap belies a much wider UK skills issue that Manchester, through its devolution portfolio, could be well positioned to help tackle.

It starts with this: what do we mean when we use the term digital or technological skills? For many of the UK’s educational institutions and policymakers tasked with shaping learning and skills development programmes, the answer to the issue seems often to gather around different forms of digital literacy e.g. using a computer or device, accessing designated software, staying safe online etc. 

This is of course crucial, and should be a basic right for every child and citizen, but this is not the skills gap that our digital and technological businesses are referring to. 

Instead the issues are more fundamental, and go directly to the heart of how the global economy is rapidly changing through disruptive innovation and non-traditional business models. 

How many young people (digital natives one and all) actually understand the technological processes going on behind the screen? The personal data/closed data world is enveloping them, built upon a growing suite of sophisticated collaboration tools and technologies. There’s new industry roles being created, a multitude of different ways of working with other people, seismic shifts in company cultures and new types of incredibly agile and responsive supply chains which help facilitate the commercial and cultural revolution we are going through. 

But what is our response to this phenomenon with regards to young people?  What journey are we preparing them for in our schools and colleges? 

It’s already clear that for new talent to make the most of the opportunities offered in a world of hi-tech start-ups, footloose digital enterprises and billion dollar unicorns, they will require a skills toolkit which proves that they not only the have the ability to create or refine digital applications and platforms, but that they also can instinctively interpret and utilise information garnered from online interactions and device usage.

Or in other words, while learning programmes that help students to code and build apps are to be applauded, the market has already moved on so rapidly that the ability to extract, map and analyse data will very quickly be seen as the key creative thinking talent required, and this will be a fundamental upstream skill to the ‘digital creation’ piece itself.

I also don’t think this skillset – the creative analysis, interpretation and application of data for both emerging business and social contexts – is something that can be achieved through a curriculum bolt-on or study pathway. It requires a new paradigm in education, and one that’s staring us in the face. 

If the premise of an education and training system is to provide life opportunities for young people (and which life opportunities will not be touched or framed by technology?) we need to empower our teachers in a new way.  We need to find innovative ways of releasing teachers from organisational and administrative burdens; we need to spend less on physical tech in schools and more on human resources; and we need to build a framework that genuinely unlocks the talents of inspirational teachers. 

Our schools and colleges are full of enthusiastic and passionate staff who are restrained by targets and rigid curriculum requirement, and if they do want to develop engaging and relevant tech-based projects for their students they often do so in their own time - working towards inevitable burn-out. I’ve also seen numerous schools around the UK leaking their best young teachers back into industry as their initial vocational commitment to making a difference is eclipsed by the frustration of classroom constraints. 

On the flip-side, some of our best digital and tech companies have in their ranks amazing and inspirational in-house training talent which is just waiting to be unlocked and which could help share the education sector’s tech skills burden. Such future industry linkages could help ensure that our young people not only soak up new ideas from the developers and designers at the coalface, but also grasp the realities of a globalised, competitive and constantly evolving employment market. 

However, if we want to unlock this talent we have to do it in a new way with far more fluid and light touch administrative processes and much more freedom for educationalists to engage with industry. 

I think Manchester itself has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to begin such a paradigm change. There are already real instigators within the city who understand the challenge, and  are pushing in the same direction to help foster our future talent; Lawrence Jones at UKFAST, Coral Grainger at Tech North and Paul Sherwood at Codethink, to name but a few. 

The devolution framework, and a wider institutional recognition of GM’s emergence as a world innovation city, provides an impetus for a radical step-change in education and training for the new technological age. It may take some brave and innovative decisions, but as a great person once said: “When magic happens it’s rarely in a place where you’re comfortable”.

Jon Corner is CEO of The Landing www.thelanding.org.uk