Closing the digital skills gap: How to grow a new generation of IT professionals

During a keynote to a packed house at Bett 2014, the UK's education secretary Michael Gove paid tribute to Britain's commitment to innovation. A recent push to overhaul the ICT curriculum in favour of teaching more practical digital skills, such as coding, has in his eyes "set schools free."

His optimism is mirrored by Matt Cynamon, the European director of General Assembly, who believes that by providing hands on training in tech design and business, a new generation of ICT professionals will be nurtured with the skills they need to succeed.

Indeed, despite reports claiming that English adults are trailing behind their international peers' digital and ICT skills, Cynamon is witnessing first-hand a change in our attitudes to training in the technology sector.

"If you compare London to let's say the US," he says, "I don't think that the skills gap is bigger in the UK than it is in the US. A lot of people want to point fingers and say 'it's because we haven't invested enough in modern education,' but I don't think it's that. If anything, I think it's because the rate at which technology is changing so fast that we're only now starting to realise it and catch up, and that's a phenomenon that occurs around the world, not just in London."

The bottom line is that digital science is a non-traditional subject that can't be taught in traditional ways. General Assembly is unique in that it teaches individuals core digital skills – such as development, data science and digital marketing – outside of the institution of a traditional school.

"If you look at our digital marketing curriculum for instance," points out Cynamon, "there's an element of theory that's taught and tools that are introduced, but within the classroom you are actually running different types of social ad strategies and then getting feedback, then reporting on that feedback and changing it as a result. That's the sort of practical application that needs to be included in any educational programme in digital skills."

It's a fresh approach that's very difference to how developers have been learning over the past few years. Before, the majority of programmers were self-taught, driven by curiosity and personal ambition.

As Cynamon points out, "There have always been online resources, especially in the web development world, where the community is so strong and so supportive that if you have the initiative you can teach yourself to code and there are a large community of people who are accessible to you to teach you." Whereas before, however, you had to search to find these resources, now this community is readily available.

It all adds up to an industry that Cynamon believes is becoming much more accessible, and "a lot of it has to do with the evolution of computer programming language. Take a look at Ruby on Rails vs an older programming language, for instance. It looks almost like natural English, it's much more intuitive, and that's just one example of what's decreasing the barriers of technology. Never before in history as well, have you had the opportunity to connect with as many thousands of people at once through social media."

Are you similarly optimistic? Are we setting ourselves up for a better generation of digital skills? Let us know in the comment section below.