As UK government braces for employment crisis, one startup thinks it has the solution

The team at educational games development startup Kuato think it has found a way to fix the looming digital skills crisis. The digital skills gap is set to become a real problem in the next five years, and the whole issue stems from the fact that British educational institutions are not creating enough digital skills graduates to fill the surge of specialised jobs.

So what can be done? Kuato's director of learning and managing director, David Miller and Mark Horneff, sat down with us to tell us how the UK can bridge the gap and take full benefit of the technological job explosion.

"The skills gap needs to be addressed much wider than the curriculum"

Mark Horneff began the conversation with an example of how educational institutions are not providing kids with an understanding about the skills required to succeed in the tech industry: "I was at this school in Peckham talking to a guy who wants to be a game developer, he has over 2,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel where he makes walkthrough videos of games. He had no idea that he was more diligent than a lot of game designers, and that he was demonstrating a lot of the skills needed in order to become a games designer."

Similarly most of the people in positions of authority over the children don't understand what roles are available or what's required to effectively perform these roles. "Parents will only inform kids on the jobs they can take based on their experience, so art wasn't something my parents told me to get into, yet graphic design and media is experiencing an explosion right now," Mark told us.

David shared a similar sentiment: "People talk a lot about 'digital natives' but really it's about 'digital creatives,' it's about parents, teachers, and governors being literate in what programming can bring to your life and what careers it leads to. But it's also about the creativity we keep banging on about."

Both Mark and David highlighted the need for a huge overhaul in how society perceives the digital environment. As Mark says, "you have to go up and down the chain." The current generation of children have already adopted and accepted the technology, but educators and policy makers are unsure of the role it can play.

"We need to show children the purpose of those [technological] skills," Mark concluded.

"Curriculums have not moved on since the 1800's"

The Kuato team also identified issues with the current curriculum, with both its content and the way children are taught. "The issue again lays in how it's [computer science] being taught. In showing the purpose of computer science, why you might use this, and how you might use this, and giving more practical lessons," Mark revealed.

However the team weren't naïve to the difficulty of changing the curriculum. "It's hard for a curriculum to change on the fly especially when technology evolves so rapidly," said Mark, highlighting the immobility of our current education system. However one relatively simple change that Mark and David both recommended would be making computer science the fourth core science alongside, biology, chemistry, and physics.

The digital skills gap is also (in part) due to the gender bias toward males studying computer science, programming, and coding. "There's a gender issue as well, studios are popping up with female coders and programmers who have high visibility in the digital creative world. In the tech industry and schools there's a bias toward boys doing computer science and programming," David expanded.

Schools need to focus on how to teach digital skills in a way that appeals to both genders. Arguably schools are already attempting to balance gender bias with a focus on teaching "21st century skills" such as collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Mark explained that's "why we're [Kuato Studios] so focused on those 21st century skills, to try and equip kids with the skills they need in the workplace."

"Businesses can't just sit at the end of the conveyer belt"

Businesses also have a responsibility to schools and universities to help bridge the digital skills gap, because ultimately they'll benefit most from well-trained, capable staff. Mark told us that business cannot simply "harvest the cream of the crop and say 'thank you very much, I'm going to go make some money'. They have a responsibility to go into schools and show kids where they can end up and help do programs; even doing one day a year at careers day."

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

For business and corporations, the investment may appear high but in the end they'd get the better deal. "I know exactly what I need in an employee and if I'm not telling them [universities and schools] what I can use, I'm setting that [digital skills] gap" Mark explains, "for example my studio might be using coding languages that universities aren't teaching. But I'm of the opinion that I could help them, I could invite them into the studio to learn for a little bit."

Similarly current academic metrics may not be the best way for business to gauge a graduate's actual ability to function in a professional environment. The reason why so many graduate schemes request students with a 2:1 or higher is not due to the knowledge that university gave them, but because the grade infers certain qualities the person may possess.

Mark provides a brief case study: "I would rather have someone who contributed the most to discussions throughout their university career, or who had their notes most downloaded from the university wiki. Those things mean more to me than someone with a good degree, because I know more about the person. I know more about how they're going to learn and how they're going to adapt to the environment"

"I think the solution to the problem is a lot bigger than people are making it"

The solution to the problem, according to Mark and David, is a radical change in the way institutions and society operate. When Mark spoke about his "top to bottom" approach he wasn't kidding; parents, professors, politicians all need to understand the technological explosion and figure out how best to take advantage of it.

The education institutions need to evolve the assessment criteria to facilitate skills that children already have (such as the Peckham school boy's YouTube channel) and explain to parents and universities, the value of those skills.

"Universities have some responsibility as well, because they base their selection criteria on these exam results," said David concerning university's role in evolving the education system from "the balance of how much knowledge a child has retained as an indicator for success, to, a hopefully, 50/50 split of how those facts are used, and how they exhibit and use the knowledge."

Businesses need to liaise with education institutions about what they need from graduates so both curriculum and assessment criteria can be tailored to employability.

Mark elucidates further "Universities just be in the business of giving solid, concrete understanding of learning and information, businesses need to add the specifics on top." This would provide a greater level of mobility for universities to alter the curriculum, and provide the tech sector with the staff it needs.