National Coding Week: The UK must address its digital technology talent shortage

Coding is the framework of modern society, it is the basis of every computer, website, phone app, and virtual assistant, and coders with their in-depth computing skills are the chief architects of our digital infrastructure.

In the post-financial crash era, there were lofty ambitions for the UK’s coding scene, with politicians envisioning an innovation powerhouse in the East of London. In November 2010, David Cameron proclaimed that the Old Street roundabout in Shoreditch was to be the UK’s very own “Silicon Roundabout”, envisioning an area moulded in the image of the U.S.’s Silicon Valley, and a centre for high-tech growth and innovation.

Whether the Silicon Roundabout itself was a success is open to debate, so too is whether it has been the catalyst for a technological ecosystem within the UK. What is undeniable, however, is that the UK’s technological job market has exploded in the past decade.

The Skills Funding Agency estimates that within twenty years, 90 per cent of all jobs will require digital skills. Yet, despite our society becoming increasingly shaped by the ‘Digital Generation’, many adults have missed out on the coding revolution, while the UK’s education system appears ill-equipped to prepare students for this new digital reality. Simply put, the UK economy has a skill shortage of highly trained coders.

Analysis from the Office for National Statistics reveals that the number of computer programmers in the UK working for private companies has increased by 51 per cent over the past decade. However, the demand for programmers is far outstripping the available talent within the job market. Research conducted by LinkedIn reveals that 150 million new technology jobs will be created in the next five years, yet nearly 40 per cent of the UK’s working population lack digital skills.

Research conducted by the Learning & Work Institute reveals that the majority of firms believe young people are leaving full-time education with insufficient advanced digital skills. Equally worrying, 70 per cent of young people expect employers to invest in their learning of relevant computing skills, despite only half of UK employers being able to provide that training.

The skill shortage can be traced to one fundamental issue: education. Since 2015, the number of young people taking IT subjects at the GCSE level has decreased by 40 per cent. This decline is occurring while the demand for AI, programming, and computing skills is soaring.

Part of the problem is that teachers themselves have not been given clear guidance and a deep understanding of the possible career paths available to students. There also exists age, race, socio-economic, and gender barriers. For example, only 26 per cent of UK graduates with core STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) degrees are female.

These issues impact an individual’s access to digital technology and the lack of representation and diversity can deter individuals from envisioning a career in the digital sector. So, the key question is what can the Government do to better encourage more people to study and consider a career in digital technology?

There’s no doubt that the Government has made steps to improve the situation. For example, the Treasury’s most recent Budget made provision for an additional £126 million in England for high-quality traineeships for 16–24-year-olds in the 2021/2022 academic year. The Treasury also announced it will financially incentivise employers by offering a rate of £1000 per trainee.

Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, has announced the UK is developing a new digital strategy that seeks to upskill the workforce. It is vital that this new strategy encourages students to consider a career in digital technology. This means that it should promote coding specific apprenticeships and seek the active involvement of businesses and specialists to serve as role models and mentors.

Equally important is how the Government promotes careers in coding and digital technology. The Government’s infamous ‘Rethink. Reskill. Reboot’ campaign was a disaster. One of the featured advertisements in this campaign included ‘Fatima the ballerina’ and a callous call for a career switch into cyber technology. Instead, the Government should launch a positive communications campaign that promotes the exciting possibilities of a career in tech that can really engage young people who might not have previously considered one.

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