Future Proofing Today's Students Against Tomorrow's Digital Skills Gap

12/05/2016 10:20 | Updated 12 May 2016

When we talk about educating students to compete in tomorrow's economy, there's a term that always seems to pop up: the 'skills gap'. It's on the UK government's agenda, but what exactly is the skills gap and what do we need to be doing to prevent the UK workforce from becoming victim to it? To approach the skills gap proactively, we need first to look at the research behind it to understand what it is and why it's important that we act now to make sure that today's students are prepared for an increasingly digital workplace.

Findings from the UK Commission of Employment and Skills (UKCES) reveal that already one in four jobs are going unfilled in the UK workforce due to skills shortage necessary for those positions, up by four per cent since 2013. Additional task force reports predict that this will only become exacerbated in the coming decades, when digital skills become even more in-demand. 'Digital skills' is a catch-all phrase that encompasses everything from knowing how to check email and work social media, to more advanced functions like working with software and programming computers. All of these individual activities are part of a digital whole that will redefine every job in the information economy in the years to come.

If the UK does not act now to invest in and promote digital skill building starting at the primary school level, then we risk falling behind other countries who have made huge strides in supporting their future workforce. Our best chance of developing a solution to the emerging skills gap in the UK is by taking a concerted joint effort between the government, industry and volunteer-led organisations. Working together with educators, these three bodies can have real, large scale impact on the opportunities young people have for learning digital skills to prepare them for the future.

Starting with primary school teachers, we must ensure that all education professionals receive proper training so that they can, in turn, educate students in subjects that will be in increased demand in the coming decades, such as computer science. At first glance, this may appear to be a difficult proposition, given the sheer number of teachers at work in the UK (over 400,000). No one wishes more than I that there was a magic bullet to solve this issue -- it will take consistent time, effort, and sustained financial investment from the government, industry, and volunteer-led organisations.

The UK government has begun to act. In 2014, it provided the British Computing Society with more than £2 million to train teachers on computing skills including coding so that they could then effectively teach these skills to their students. This type of government support and resource allocation is key, but it alone won't solve the skills gap. By involving industry and not-for-profit educational organisations to play a direct role in setting the agenda for education, the government's efforts can be significantly bolstered.

Where the government must contend with limited funds and red tape surrounding educational programs, industry, on the other hand, moves at a rapid pace. One way in which the private sector can give back to communities and help shape the next generation of its own potential recruits, is by volunteering to help educate and inspire local schoolchildren. Financial investment is important, but investing resources such as knowledge, outreach, and time into communities is equally so. Volunteering is incredibly powerful and it needn't cost a thing -- in fact many companies report that they see their volunteers' skills increase and have been able to use the opportunity to attract top candidates who want to work for a company that gives back to their community.

Volunteer-led educational programs, working with industry, can contribute to a solution at scale. And scale is the key here. There are currently approximately 21,000 primary schools in the UK. If there were a volunteer-led skills building initiative in every school, the potential for national impact on skill building could be significant.

Working both with the government and separately to help prevent a skills shortage is a conscientious and socially responsible approach which can also reap dividends for the private sector. By investing resources such as time and mentorship locally, private organisations large or small can directly contribute to fostering tomorrow's innovators and future candidates for their own recruitment pools.

It's simple for the private sector to involve itself in volunteer activities. There are many options for companies to give back to their local communities by engaging in volunteer-led programs that make a difference at the primary school level and beyond. For example, at Code Club, over 50% of the volunteers come from private sector companies. They volunteer their time to help children aged 9-11 learn to solve problems and valuable computer skills by leading coding projects in any one of 4,000 after-school Code Clubs across the UK. The benefit to both the volunteers, the community and (most importantly) the students, is huge.

If we are to bridge the skills gap, it requires everyone's effort, collectively. Industry big and small, government, and voluntary organisations working together can build a positive future for Britain's workforce. It is wholly doable if we start now.