With the General Election nearly upon us, techUK, the industry organisation that represents 700,000 IT and digital professionals across over 900 UK businesses, has issued its own manifesto. Inventing the Future: How Global Britain Can Shape Our Digital Future, urges the next government to put the technology sector front and centre of its post-Brexit strategy to supercharge a newly independent UK economy.
In our previous report on the manifesto, we explored the ideological arguments raging in Whitehall about digital security and surveillance, and the challenges this presents to keeping the UK in the vanguard of technology innovation.
Among the other key areas set out by techUK are lifelong education, and the need to nurture the right skills for the next generation of real-world jobs.
This is a massive challenge: the technology skills gap in the UK stretches back over two decades. Despite young people’s love for apps and mobile technologies today, local and national skills programmes over the past 20 years have consistently found the same thing: the digital jobs are there, but not enough people have the right mix of skills (or even the basic ones) to fill them.
This is a problem compounded by an education system that is increasingly narrow and target driven, rather than broad and inclusive. Critical thinking is thin on the ground, report many teachers and skills professionals, among a generation of young people that is adept at solo working and social networking, but less able to work in real-world teams towards shared creative goals.
The UK has long been uncertain where tech skills sit in the curriculum, and the education system’s tendency to sideline arts subjects nationally risks losing the vital connection between science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM ) careers, and disciplines such as design – not to mention content. Many people now talk about the need for STEAM: adding arts into the mix.
TechUK warns that Brexit uncertainty is actively making the skills situation worse.
It says: “Alongside the existing digital skills gap in the UK, significant uncertainty on the access to EU talent, and new restrictions to hiring non-EEA workers introduced in April 2017 risk hindering growth. The dynamism of the sector means tech creates new jobs at nearly three times the rate of the rest of the economy, and demand far outstrips supply.”
So what can the next government do to ensure that developing the skills for the jobs of the future is at the heart of its agenda?
Funding is one part of the equation. TechUK says: “The £1,000 Immigration Skills Charge, added to all Tier-2 visas and long-term Inter-Company Transfers since April 2017, is set to raise approximately £250 million in 2017-18 financial year alone, based on calculations by the Migration Advisory Committee.
“The government should ring-fence this initial £250 million raised to fund investment in domestic digital skills programmes. This would meet a central commitment in the Digital Strategy to boost the UK’s digital skills and help scale existing initiatives. Thereafter, the annual funds raised by the charge should continue to be used to develop UK digital skills initiatives.”
Next comes the curriculum itself. TechUK acknowledges the positive steps that have been made, such as the mandate that all KS-1 and -2 pupils should understand algorithms – some primary schools have tackled this via fun robotics workshops, for example.
But more work needs to be done, says techUK: “A 2015 survey found that almost a third of teachers do not feel confident in their ability to teach coding effectively, while nearly half (42%) do not believe that they have received adequate training and support.
“Teachers must be confident in the subject matter to ensure young people are excited and empowered by technology. As such, the new government should commit £50 million in additional Continued Professional Development funding for computing teachers.”
The need to prevent long-term social exclusion will be a particular challenge, given the widening gap between rich and poor. Digital exclusion runs parallel to social inequality: 11.5 million adults lack basic digital skills, and 5.3 million people in the UK have never used the internet, according to techUK research.
The organisation says, “Digital exclusion will be a major inhibitor to digitising public services and will hamper social mobility. The new government should commit £10 million in funding to help significantly reduce digital exclusion over the term of the next Parliament.”
It adds: “The National College of Digital Skills (‘Ada’) is a transformative new model for 16-18 learning, aligned with the needs of industry. This specialist further education institute is tailored to fit the industry’s need for higher-level digital skills, and is also in part a social mission to up-skill socially disadvantaged youth. This model is a commendable means to address the digital skills gap, and the next government should roll this model out nationally.”
But large sections of the population face digital exclusion for another reason: their gender. Despite the inspiring examples of women such as Virginia Rometty and Meg Whitman in the US – CEOs of IBM and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, respectively – and Dr Sue Black and Baroness Lane-Fox in the UK, among others, just 17 per cent of British tech jobs are occupied by women.
Much more needs to be done to inspire girls and women to work in STEAM careers, says techUK. “Starting at the beginning of the pipeline, there is a significant issue in girls’ GCSE and A-Level choices. Sixty-five per cent of the UK’s mixed secondary schools have no girls doing Computing at A-Level and many have no girls doing any STEM subject in the sixth form.
“The UK digital skills gap will not be addressed if so much talent is lost after GCSEs. Advice and guidance is critical for girls who are interested in studying and pursuing STEM subjects further.
“The next Government should commit £20 million to support industry-led existing initiatives that encourage girls to pursue STEM subjects.”
Retaining women in technology careers is a further challenge: almost two million women are currently economically inactive due to caring commitments, while 76 per cent of professional women on career breaks want to return to work, but find it tough.
TechUK recently launched its own ‘Returners Hub’, a one-stop shop for people looking to come back into the tech sector, and for employers to explore targeted training opportunities.
But techUK saves its biggest idea for last: it recommends that the next government should launch an independent Commission into the entire education system, and into lifelong learning and the future of work: a body with the power to recommend root and branch reform to ensure that everyone (not just the young) has the skills to flourish in a 21st Century economy.
This is an excellent idea, but it is hard to see the government favouring it, particularly when the FT estimates that the UK will have to renegotiate well over 700 international treaties just to stand still. In short, the UK is in serious danger of being unable to see the economic forest because of the hundreds of trees in its way.
And Prime Minister Theresa May faces a problem of her own, which is perhaps just as serious: young people overwhelmingly reject her policies, according to recent surveys. While this can be dismissed as generational rebellion, the underlying message is that May’s government is seen by many people as an administration by and for angry, privileged, middle-aged people, rather than one that offers a compelling, hopeful, upbeat vision for the young, and for our future.
Regardless of party politics and voting choices, that should be ringing alarm bells.
Should May win a new mandate from the electorate, she will have a mountain to climb to convince young people that she is building a country in which they can succeed and thrive – particularly as all the noises her government has been making about the tech sector carry a strong message of surveillance, state control, and internet regulation.
And those messages don’t just trouble the young, but also the sector itself and our economic partners, allies, and investors.
When it comes to technology, the vision from our current leaders – the vision that is so obviously needed to carry us all forward into the post-Brexit world – seems overwhelmingly dark, dated, inappropriate, and ambiguous, not light, modern, inclusive, and ambitious.
That urgently needs to change.