Q&A: How can we address the STEM skills gap?

The Science and Technology Committee recently published a report stating that the digital skills gap is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year in lost GDP. It’s a time of turbulent change, both politically and economically and fostering home grown talent with the most up to date digital skills is more important than ever.

We caught up with Julian Wragg, EMEA Managing Director at online IT learning provider Pluralsight, to see what can be done to address the STEM and IT skills gap in the UK.

What skills exactly are lacking? Is it solely the much-talked-about STEM subjects or are other areas falling short as well?

STEM subjects are hugely important; however, much of the current technology curriculum for university and college education doesn’t place enough emphasis on the relevant technical skills needed in today’s businesses. It’s technical and programming skills such as coding languages and frameworks such as Angular JS, Java, C# and .NET, which are required alongside knowledge of data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cybersecurity.

The EU Commission reports that by 2020 the continent will have a shortfall of 900,000 much-needed IT professionals – that’s a population the size of Stockholm.

The challenge is that new technologies are emerging at an unprecedented pace and the education system is struggling to keep up with it. Often college and university curriculums are running out of date courses and subsequently graduates leave with outdated skills impacting their employability. If a new technology does emerge, it can take 6-18 months for this to get onto a curriculum aligned to exams by which time the technology landscape will have moved on again. It’s the lack of synchronised technical skills training at a college and university level which is struggling to keep pace with accelerated technology change in industry.

How does the UK’s skills gap compare to other countries?

There have been many reports that the UK is lagging behind other countries when it comes to acquiring digital skills. Earlier this month, Barclay’s Digital Development Index highlighted that only 16 per cent of UK workers would feel comfortable building a website, compared to 39 per cent in Brazil and 37 per cent in India. This skills gap is amounts to over £63bn lost in annual GDP according to the report, and needs to be urgently addressed at a government and employer level.

But everything isn’t all doom and gloom. According to The Digital Economy and Society Index, the UK is the highest ranked EU country in terms of STEM graduates per population. The UK is taking steps in the right direction to improve our position in the long-term, but in the short-term, companies need to encourage and facilitate continuous learning to help employees acquire relevant digital skills.

How does this or could this affect your business in the future?

Ultimately this is putting greater pressure on employers to provide up-to-date IT and technical skills. We’re seeing employers shift to online technology learning platforms, such as Pluralsight, to help upskill both entry level IT talent as well as existing talent with advanced skills.

What steps are companies taking to minimise the gap, both in terms of finding new talent and encouraging the upskilling of their employees and the workforce of the future?

Employers are finding new ways to upskill their employees and give them access to the latest technical training through on-demand, online learning platforms which provide 24/7 access to IT skills from any location and on any device. Many companies are realising that traditional classroom-based methods are ineffective in a fast-moving technical economy. Traditional classroom-based training is difficult to scale in large organisations, expensive and doesn’t provide a solution for on-the-job issues that need resolving at the point of need, something taken for granted by today’s millennial generation.

To minimise the skills gap, we’re noticing that companies are recruiting talent with 50-60 per cent of the skills required as they can’t find people with 100 per cent of the skills needed. Employers are bringing them into their business with the base-level of skills and then providing comprehensive online training to bring them up to speed.

Leading companies are using online tools, such as Pluralsight, that include comprehensive skills assessment which creates a personalised learning path based on a person’s skill level. Traditional ways of learning will erode further, in favour of online learning where employees can access high quality courses to learn and problem solve at the point of need, immediately applying their knowledge to their day-to-day job or a specific challenge.

How can the IT department specifically look to address this issue?

It only takes two years for half of developers’ skills to be out of date so it’s crucial that CIOs working with the Learning and Development department dedicate time and resources to keeping their teams’ skills fresh. While a day out of the office might seem like a welcome break, no one wants to spend a whole day receiving death by PowerPoint. Instead, IT workers often prefer a ‘just in time’ approach to learning, where they can learn on the job at the point of need, and at any time via access to an in-depth platform of up to date, high quality online learning materials and videos.

What role can apprenticeships play in creating more prepared and qualified workers?

Apprenticeships can certainly play a huge role in preparing skilled workers. We’re working with an organisation in London who specialise in taking on apprentices, training them and contracting them to large businesses, for instance in the fintech sector. The company is using Pluralsight to help upskill these apprentices so they’re workplace ready.

To what extent are companies sourcing much-needed talent from the EU and how will they have to adapt because of possible Brexit ramifications?

Already, the majority of businesses are sourcing a patchwork of IT talent across Europe and beyond. We have many clients who employ developers across Europe and India. If there is a lack of freedom of movement due to Brexit, it will put a further strain on UK businesses trying to acquire much sought after talent. UK employers will have to adapt; it will raise the stakes as Britain will be competing with other European nations for IT talent.

It also raises the question whether the UK can retain talent overseas. For instance, if I’m a software developer in Lithuania, is it going to be more difficult to work with a UK company remotely? This type of talent might be attracted to another city such as Berlin or Amsterdam than go through a process to work in the UK in future. For now, it’s too early to say, but certainly upskilling existing talent pools whether in Europe or UK will only gain precedence over the coming years.

What steps can individuals take to future-proof their careers?

I’d highly recommend joining networks, seeking help from others, and investing time in your own personal development for continuous learning. Hackathons, for example and coding clubs are a great start. Find others, whether they are colleagues or other peers where you can collaborate on code, discuss new tools and issues that you might be experiencing. For instance, it could be a book club style session following an online training a group of you have taken.

There’s also a great array of learning resources available, both free and paid for, including online learning platforms such as Pluralsight. Learn as much as you can and up skill on topics that are of personal interest to you and see what courses or topics are trending. You can often do this by keeping abreast of tech news or browsing online forums. If there’s something you want to learn, don’t be afraid to push your employer to help you achieve this – it may not seem relevant now, but it could well be a skill you need on a project in 6 months’ time as technology change accelerates.

Julian Wragg, EMEA Managing Director at Pluralsight