Mind the gap: how the UK can boost digital skills by going back to school

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When it comes to digital there are some worrying trends at play for the next generation. According to a UK government paper, cheeringly titled ‘Digital Skills Crisis’, we learn that the shortage of digital knowhow in the workplace is costing the UK economy £63bn a year. 

Further, a survey by the British Chamber of Commerce across 1,400 businesses found 84% valued digital and IT skills more than two years ago and half (51%) said they were significantly more important. Yet three in four felt their business was lacking the necessary skills. 

The generation currently going into employment are routinely called ‘digital natives’, but their innate digital knowhow isn’t always transferring into the workplace. It’s on businesses, and the entire digital industry, to help foster and encourage their digital expertise for the greater good of them, their employer and the economy at large.     

Digital realities 

Training and perception would appear to be at the heart of the issue. Engaging with over 5,000 young people nationwide (and a handful globally - Amnuay Silpa School joined in from Bangkok!), ‘Digital Day’ brings the reality of working in the digital sector to schools around the UK. It exposes them to the way people work in the industry, the opportunities that exist and the impact digital skills can have.

But the process is reciprocal. Agencies and brand partners come to listen to what the next generation believes it means to be part of the digital workforce. This year, there were some revelatory insights. But there were also consistent trends from previous years, highlighting how education changes that are needed still aren’t happening.   

Firstly, there is no doubt that this generation of young people truly are digital natives. Coding and wireframing held no mystery for many as they’d already been using them at home and in school.   

There is also widespread understanding of the power of digital. All the participants were able to respond to real world problems with inspirational and practical applications for websites and apps. 

The perception problem 

It’s also hugely encouraging to see the appetite for innovation. Projects exploring VR were the biggest draw and the students had no fear in trying out new techniques and technologies they hadn’t used before. The philosophy of experimentation, of quashing fear of failure with the joy of exploration is very much in evidence.   

But we discovered that this joy in the digital playground is also what is holding a number of young people back from exploring digital as a serious profession. Digital is something they play with. It can’t be something that serious-minded businesspeople would want to pay them a salary for, can it?   

The flip side is that they believe digital ‘work’ involves monotonous hours spent programming. They haven’t been given an insight into the hugely diverse and creative portfolio of jobs in the industry. It hasn’t filtered through that ideas are as important as practical capability in front of a computer.   

Digital is a totally new way of approaching challenges and finding solutions but it feels like new ways of problem-solving have yet to filter down into education. The pupils still approach tasks in a traditional, linear way. Using market research and insight to ratify their ideas was a revelation to many. It sent students out of the classroom, testing ideas with friends and teachers, looking online for evidence and stats. 

We need to help educators see how problem-solving in the real world impacts the tools and tactics they supply to the next generation.   

And, yet again, the same gender bias pattern shows no signs of abating. Concerningly, it’s sometimes coming from within.   

In one school a female team’s idea was as strong as any others in the room but they put it forward with innate self-deprecation and lack of confidence. Outside that, the pitching skills were excellent but there’s still clearly work to be done if we’re going to advance to a truly gender balanced industry. 

This is what Digital Day can only start to address. We need to bring industry and education with us to really put the digital workforce of the future on the right track.   

Some might argue this is a governmental issue of national concern. In many ways it is but on a practical level we as an industry can’t just leave it to a national administration to ‘fix’. Continue to pressure, lobby and cajole by all means, but we can’t sit back and wait.   

Involving the industry 

We need educators to welcome industry into the classroom to demonstrate what being digital really means. The digital world moves so quickly and is so complex we can’t expect teachers - already experts in a wholly different sector - to deliver digital learnings for us. 

By bringing the likes of SapientRazorfish, DigitasLBi, TH_NK and Huge (to name but four) into the school environment on Digital Day meant there was a mutual learning of what the next generation needs to thrive and plug the gap.   

Digital Day proved it is more than just a technology try-out. It’s a digital career hackathon, exploring ways to mould the workplace and education to tap into the deep well of intellect and innovation present in our young people.   

From AI to VR to machine learning to technologies we haven’t even considered yet, digital is going to be a driver of economic and social good in the lives of all our digital natives. Whilst there is clearly still work to be done – by government, educators and industry – it’s hugely encouraging that education initiatives are making a real, tangible difference. The foundation stones are now laid, and young people are now seeing how they can have an influence on, rather than merely being influenced by, digital technology.   

Natalie Gross, President of BIMA 

Image Credit: Billetto Editorial / Unsplash