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Russ Shaw

Founder, Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates

The UK’s future after Brexit hinges on how we teach digital skills

Last week at the House of Lords committee on economic affairs, I addressed the changing technology landscape and how the UK will require more talent with digital skills, from the very basic to the most advanced levels – secondary schools, colleges and universities must address both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills.

According to our latest survey of the 5,700 Tech London Advocates who represent start-ups, corporates, academic and financial institutions, 55 per cent expressed that the impact of Brexit and its effect on access to talent is the biggest threat. The committee offered an opportunity for representatives of the UK’s technology community to voice concerns and to discuss how the education system can come to solve the growing demand for digital skills on a domestic level.

Reforming the education system to reflect the requirements of a digital economy means starting earlier. Building digital skills into the UK’s education system at a younger age, 14 or 15 onwards, is key in developing domestic talent. We need to think about how we are producing well-rounded young people with a broad set of skills – this generation will have to be flexible to changing job markets – the jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow.

Universities, colleges and schools, cooperating with industry and listening to the technology sector, can help graduates gain the skills they need to overcome challenges heading into the workforce. While it is vital that we develop a deeper level of coding, programming and data analytics, one of the biggest frustrations of employers is that the graduates they recruit are lacking in the necessary soft-skills.

Effective communication, team-building, problem-solving and leadership qualities are needed, so that these graduates can have a meaningful impact within businesses. Companies must work alongside the education system to nurture those soft skills from a younger age and we must encourage the importance of work experience.

Businesses have started, yet more can be done to actively bring younger students into organisations and help to form these soft-skills outside of the classroom. A closer relationship between the UK education system and industry would mean that we can start narrowing the skills gap in the right way and help to foster the digital talent needed to drive the technology sector.

It is therefore essential that we start providing the necessary skills demanded in the digital economy from a younger age. However, we must note that the defining feature of this era is the speed at which technology changes.

Education in digital skills must become an integral part in equipping our society with the right abilities. Taking positive steps towards in supporting lifelong learning – providing viable opportunities for people to upskill and respond to these rapidly changing job markets – especially for those who are at a later stage in their career – is vital.

Having a versatile talent pool at the centre of an innovative technology sector will only help to sustain growth. Businesses have an important role to play here, in line with the government, we must ensure that people have the opportunity to adapt, reskill and become educated in the skills industry are asking for.

The education system and the approach to lifelong learning most reflect the disruptive trends of the technology sector. It is important to recognise that job markets are evolving and the impact of technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning will be profound – lower-skill jobs in particular sectors will disappear – high skill jobs are not immune as positions, for example, in the legal profession will start to vanish. However, jobs which require human interface and interaction will still be needed and in a number of areas, will be even more critical.

We must work together to ensure that we are clear in demanding that digital skills are accessible to everyone, focusing heavily on diversity across gender, black and minority ethnic groups. Many useful grassroots initiatives already exist but these will need more resources – there is no need to recreate and start from the beginning when many organisations are already doing important work. 

Going forward it is an inclusive approach across all communities that must be adopted; job growth will be there for those who have the right skills. 

The UK has an opportunity to become a robust, productive digital nation and we have a technology community committed to making this a reality – how we educate society must come to reflect this.