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Oh snap! Why the election and Brexit means we must finally plug the digital skills gap

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/JMiks)

Considering recent global events, one would be forgiven for thinking we might no longer be shocked by politics, but Prime Minister Theresa May’s sudden decision to hold a snap general election in June has heightened the sense of uncertainty in an already complex post-Brexit world. Now that Article 50 has been triggered, its consequences have been rendered even more ambiguous when combined with the snap election that has been called. As such, it’s worth reflecting on the implications for the digital sector, in order to set a clear agenda during these destabilised times. 

Earlier this year, the publication of the Tech Nation 2017 report certainly instilled hope. According to the report, digital tech industries contribute a gargantuan £97bn to the UK economy, and the UK’s tech sector grew 50 per cent faster than the whole economy in 2015. What’s more, despite the result of the EU Referendum, the UK enjoyed £6.8bn tech investment last year. This bodes well for the inevitable reality that, following Brexit, it'll be more important than ever for UK tech businesses to flourish.

Although overseas investment into the UK has depended in part on access to the single market, it’s still important to remember that, over the past five years, London specifically has received more investment than Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam combined. Consequently, irrespective of whether or not the future Government – which, although indicative in polls, will remain unconfirmed for some weeks – obtains access to the single market, the UK must harness its key assets as a hub of digital innovation in order to prosper outside of the EU. In practice, this means providing the digital skills that leaders require for their tech companies to grow.

An increasing skills gap

As a London-based video games studio, hiring top developers has always been a priority for our company. The UK already has a massive digital skills gap, but this gap will only increase after Brexit, as hiring from overseas becomes increasingly difficult. It’s no secret that the technology industry relies heavily upon immigration for access to such skills, which means that it's never been more vital to foster home-grown tech talent. 

Last year, the Science and Technology Committee published a report revealing that a shocking 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills, while 5.8 million people have never used the internet. Only 35 per cent of computer teachers in schools have a relevant degree, and 30 per cent of required computer science teachers have not yet been recruited. Costing the UK economy £63 billion a year in lost GDP, this UK digital skills gap is an extremely expensive mistake we cannot afford to make amid all this uncertainty. Still, that doesn’t mean that all hope is lost and, instead of wallowing in the situation, we must remain optimistic.

One way of boosting Britain’s digital prowess from the grassroots is by working with schools across the country and driving coding initiatives into classrooms. In case anyone needs a refresher, coding replaced ICT (under the banner of computer science) in UK schools back in 2014. This means new generations of students have been granted a future in a progressively digital economy. Thanks to this government initiative, students from all social and academic backgrounds can enjoy the benefits of coding – which is why it’s so important to help drive coding initiatives into classrooms. In order to safeguard the UK’s future, it’s imperative to equip young people with tools to create innovative services and solutions to some of the biggest upcoming problems.

Encouraging the young

However, while it’s great that coding has been added to the UK curriculum, the dearth of qualified computer science teachers shows there’s clearly much more to be done outside of the classroom to plug the digital skills gap. Consequently, it’s important to find ways to encourage school-age pupils into STEM careers outside of the classroom – from video games to volunteer-led events, as well as exposure to industry. This will address the STEM skills gap in the UK, protecting the future of the countless tech startups fuelling the economy. 

Crucially, let’s not forget that STEM careers revolve around innovation; inevitably, continual problem-solving and challenges requires imaginative thinkers. After all, coding is a particularly creative subject, frequently seen as an intersection between arts and maths. Technology has succeeded in transforming nearly every sector with inspiring alacrity, and now has the potential to do the same in the education sector, which is the key to plugging the increasing digital skills gap. 

Intriguingly, also last year, a study from the International Journal of Communication revealed that online gamers perform better at school compared to those who spent more time on social media instead. This is a further building block to support the notion that the conflation of education and video games can yield powerful results – as long as developers take a ‘game-first’ approach, at least. For teachers, a well-designed digital environment for learning provides a rich stimulus for conversation, which is a crucial part of the learning process. Through the malleability of video games, young people are encouraged to see learning as something playful – something they can create and change.

Faced with both Brexit and a snap election, it’s never been more vital to encourage young people to be producers of technology, rather than passive consumers – equipped with the necessary digital skills to fuel our economy. By making coding mainstream, we can build ladders of opportunity for all young people, boosting populations underrepresented in coding careers. It’s vital to encourage an empowered coding community of all genders, races, statuses, and roots. Inclusion solves more of the world’s problems, as there’s a more diverse range of people consequently addressing different issues – rather than simply existing in an echo chamber.

 Indeed, learning to code means so much more than the specific language learned at the time – just as learning French means so much more than the words alone on the page. By learning another language, even just the basics, it’s possible to connect with a new community. As the creative benefits of coding often get lost in formal learning environments, we must develop more options outside of the classroom to address the UK’s digital skills gap. Undoubtedly, as the Tech Nation 2017 report shows, the UK’s digital future depends on it.

Mark Horneff, MD, Kuato Studios (opens in new tab)
Image source: Shutterstock/JMiks

MD Mark Horneff has over 20 years’ experience at major games studios, including Sega, Ideaworks, and Sony. At the latter, he took Playstation Home from concept to reality.