The growing importance of critical thinking in IT education

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This is a guest blog by Dr Arosha K. Bandara, senior lecturer in Computing at The Open University

A criticism often levelled at IT education is that by the time you come to apply the skills, they might be out of date. Why learn technology skills when that technology might not be in use in a couple of years?

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IT does change fast, but the fundamentals of how we design and build systems change at a slower pace. As long as we learn about today's technology in the context of how it relates to the business world and how it is likely to evolve, then we will be in a much better position to respond intelligently to the changing world.

But this is often overlooked by both formal and in-house training programmes, which have favoured skills which address very specific challenges. In order to be adequately prepared to tackle tomorrow's technology challenges, we need to move from a mindset of knowing how to apply technology to well understood situations, to one of being able to think critically about problems, and identify solutions to unknown as well as familiar technology issues.

Think differently

To prepare IT professionals for the rapidly changing world of technology, we need to instil an approach based on critical thinking. I'll look at how we might do this, before putting this approach in context.

The organisation you work in is complex. It is shaped by the nature of individual thinking processes as well as existing technology and business pressures. Any changes will have causes and consequences that may have a much wider impact. Solving a problem will change things, which could lead to other problems.

Different people see different priorities. There is sometimes no obvious answer, or many different reasonable answers.  But there are also wrong answers, which can be pursued, sometimes at great cost. These often result from a very narrow focus on the problem out of context.

Interconnections are too often ignored, a single cause may be presumed, or an individual quickly blamed. This is not exclusive to IT, we see this in wider society all the time - it's easier to blame crime on individual criminals than deal with the many complex societal factors that lead some to criminality. The other mistake is a focus on outcomes - ie how many criminals can we arrest rather than how many crimes can we prevent.

To avoid these mistakes, problems should be approached by thinking about the systems that affect the challenge or opportunity. This is more difficult than isolating and addressing a problem, but ultimately more likely to produce a better solution.

Thinking about systems

As well as looking at how technology works, it is necessary to think about how people will react to it. Is a great new technology too hard to learn? Will tough new security procedures incentivise people to circumvent them? We need to understand the systems in which new technology operates.

Cognitive mapping is a technique for understanding and shaping the mental models your stakeholders use to per­ceive, contextualise, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex problems. Thinking through these will help ensure new technologies and programmes have the results they are supposed to.

However good your plan is, you won't foresee everything, so it is also critical to continuously test and review, and feed that learning into your ever evolving plans. Throughout the life cycle of any project, topics such as stakeholders, finance, risk, people, project administration and quality must be constantly reviewed in the context of the project.

The world of the future will require more understanding of flexible management. We will have to place more emphasis on learning as we go and making sure that learning changes our practice and organisations. We need to get used to this.

Critical thinking in context

Two core skills of any modern IT professional are cyber security and software engineering. Both relate to complex real world challenges and can only be dealt with effectively if they think critically.

Firstly, cyber security. Any IT professional needs to fully explore the available security technologies and stay up to date with them. But they also need to think through the risks that may arise in all relevant aspects of an organisation's operations which may impact security, including human factors, web services and system upgrades.

You also need to be able to plan for when things do go wrong. Again, this needs an understanding of attackers' motivations and employee weaknesses, as well as of the technologies available to circumvent your defences, and a sense of how these could evolve. It also requires an understanding of the legal frameworks and technologies relevant to digital forensics, which are essential when responding to cyber security incidents. Only then can effective plans be made.

Teaching all this must be put in a real world context. In our own post-graduate courses, most students learn these techniques by crafting a fit-for-purpose Information Security Management System for the organisation where they work.

Secondly, software engineering. Contact between the business and the external world is often mediated by software, and the business has a responsibility to its wider community that may be served, or jeopardised, by this software.

Skilled software engineers can add a lot of value by creating or adapting software, from managing projects and sales, analysing performance and customer data, and automating tasks. All of these exist in a complex real world, where humans react to change in different ways. Any new system must understand how users or customers will respond to it.

The skill is not one of knowing how to do this, it is one of knowing how to model the relationships between the software, the organisation it serves, and its wider environment. This approach must be used in development, roll out, updates and maintenance - it is an evolving process.

Critical thinking doesn't mean ignoring technology, of course. The process can be evolved further by an understanding of different software engineering tools that can help them simulate, manage and monitor. Using these effectively is part of the skill of good IT planning.

A critical approach allows you to plan effectively

IT is critical to business and will become ever more so. It exists in an increasingly networked and interconnected world, where groups, teams, organisations and even nations will have to be smarter in their ways of working together.

IT professionals therefore need to be able to think in ways that reflect these challenges. IT education at all levels must teach how to take a critical approach which relates technical competencies to complex technological, human and business issues.

Dr Bandara teaches Postgraduate Computing courses at The Open University aimed at helping IT professionals advance by using technology strategically to drive the business forward.


Scott Logic's 'A Day in the Life' employee stories

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Software consultancy Scott Logic has published a series of 'A Day in the Life' employee stories to give an insight into what it is like to work in technology.

Those interested in working at Scott Logic, or just interested in hearing about different IT roles, can learn about jobs such as graduate developer, developer, senior developer, lead developer, technical architect, head of development, test engineer and lead test engineer.

John Wright, recruitment manager at Scott Logic, said: "We've grown steadily over the past 10 years and as most companies often experience, the real people and their stories can be lost behind traditional corporate content used on company websites.

"The response we received from our staff was amazing and their stories clearly communicate what it's really like to work at Scott Logic."

Scott Logic has offices in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Bristol and London and plans to grow its workforce by 50% in 2015. 

"Lessons will Be learned": Safeguarding in schools

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This is a guest blog from Martin Baker and Mike Glanville are former chief officers of Dorset Police, now directors of One Team Logic, providers of MyConcern safeguarding software for schools.


Question: Which Google search returns 366 million hits?  Answer: 'Lessons Will

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 Be Learned'.  OK, not all of these hits refer to safeguarding but you get the point; this hackneyed phrase has become the media statement of choice following every instance of incompetence, negligence, malfeasance or tragedy.  But when the media interest wanes are those lessons really learned? And what does that mean in the context of safeguarding in schools[1]?


Firstly, some background.  The 1973 public inquiry into the death of seven-year-old Maria Colwell laid the foundations for the UK's contemporary child protection procedures. Since that time a litany of tragic incidents has resulted

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changes in legislation.  These developments have been accompanied by a plethora of Government guidance and recommendations from innumerable Serious Case Reviews (SCRs)[2] following the death of or serious injury to a child.  So, there is no shortage of 'lessons to be learned' in relation to safeguarding, and not least in education.


Yet the processes underpinning one of a school's most fundamental duties - to safeguard its pupils - continue to operate like a 1950s bureaucracy.  In 2015 our 'digital natives' are being safeguarded by a regime steeped in paper, brown manila folders, four-ring binders and filing cabinets.  In UK schools today you will find a huge range of information and technology to support almost every aspect of education - but not safeguarding.  And this at a time when safeguarding has never been more complex, nor the legal duties on schools more stringent.  The ever-present risk of abuse, neglect, the contemporary challenges of child mental health, e-safety, child sexual exploitation, female genital mutilation, extremism and radicalisation, the multiple issues from home and community that can affect child development and wellbeing - a whole world of risk passing through our school gates on a daily basis.  And all predominantly managed on paper and email.   Add to this the pressure on schools to pursue targets, the limited time available for training and the austerity-driven reductions in local authority (LA) support and it becomes clear that 'learning lessons' isn't straightforward.


So who is accountable?  Ultimately, it is the responsibility of headteachers, governing bodies and academy sponsors to ensure that safeguarding practices in schools are effective.  But how do they know?  In the age of 'big data' it is startling that, because of the paper-driven nature of the safeguarding systems in schools, there is little-to-no data of any practical use to assist schools, their LAs or their Local Safeguarding Children's Boards to track threats and predict trends in order to protect children. (By law, schools must provide an annual safeguarding report to their governing bodies; this is often very short, containing only a handful of manually compiled statistics).  'After the fact', Ofsted inspects school safeguarding arrangements and allocates a grade - if your safeguarding is 'Inadequate' so is your school.  But by then the damage could have been done.


During our policing careers we saw the tragic consequences for victims and families when safeguarding failed, and as school governors we have observed the endless paper trail that accompanies safeguarding in education.  We have examined in detail every piece of legislation, policy and guidance and every relevant Case Review.  This resulted in us designing an integrated approach to safeguarding that seeks to incorporate all of the 'lessons learned' in relation to: governance, leadership and management; preventing harm; recording concerns; case management; information sharing within schools and with other agencies; recruitment, vetting and training; allegations of abuse against staff; data protection and subject access; information security; records transfer between schools; the retention of records (25 years in respect of child protection - good luck with the paper!) and the vitally important issue of learning from the data.


Our schools are full of committed members of staff who succeed in safeguarding through their own skills and determination, despite the very poor systems and tools at their disposal.  We are now able to provide not only the information but also the technology that they need and deserve in order to deliver on their safeguarding responsibilities. We've recently joined the E2BN ThinkIT framework, designed to make IT simple for schools, because we believe that schools should be able to access good support from trusted organisations, and that lessons should be learned!    

[1] England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own child protection legislation, albeit there are many similarities; this article focuses on the current arrangements in England.

[2] SCRs are held following the death of or serious injury to a child where abuse or neglect is thought to be involved; in 2014 in England alone there were 58 SCRs, the majority of which related to child deaths.

Technology security in schools - how digital safeguarding isn't just managing online access

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This is a guest blog from Stone Group and Advanced Security Consulting.

Stone Group's Simon Harbridge and security consultant Jay Abbott of Advanced Security Consulting recently got together to discuss the worrying issue of security in schools and how technology helps and hinders its progress. What they talked about may surprise you.

Simon Harbridge: Jay, you and I recently attended the same debate on digital safeguarding, and we found a lot of common ground. I was quite surprised that the conversation seems to be still revolving around simply educating kids about the dangers of online conversations. Were you?

Jay Abbott: I wasn't taken aback, but I was a little concerned by it, as were you I think! We were talking with highly influential people, from NASUWT, Childnet, ParentZone, as well as heads of school. I felt that there was a fixation on the damage that being online can cause, and the knock-on effects on teachers and pupils, rather than a need to solve the root issues.

Simon Harbridge: Agreed. There were several moments of clarity, one being a comment that kids don't respect or use the term 'e-safety', so we shouldn't either, and another being that kids don't distinguish between on and offline conversations or relationships - they are all part of their social mix. I can relate to that, because we're spending a lot of time with schools who want to foster an environment of location independent learning - bringing education to life with lessons outside the classroom that use elements such as Augmented Reality to bring things online into the offline world. BYOD and one to one device schemes are driven by this change. It's kind of exciting, seeing technology be such an integral part of day to day life in schools, especially as it's matching children's expectations about how life 'should' be.

Jay Abbott: Precisely, but from my experience, the focus needs to also be on the 'back office' parts of a school's technology, for the roots of digital safeguarding strategy to really take hold. No one to one device scheme, or digital policy is going to weather the demands on it, or the attacks on its security, without particular attention to the technology, and the people managing the devices.

Simon Harbridge:  Of course. We're working with a lot of schools at the moment to replace their obsolete Windows Server 2003 technology. Much of that is driven by the unique security threats to education that continuing to use it beyond the end-of-life Microsoft has decreed. We think about one in five schools will be left vulnerable. What kind of problems do you think sticking with obsolete technology like Windows Server 2003 can lead to?

Jay Abbott:  Well, in the context of a school, where an "us vs them" culture exists between the general user base and supporting infrastructure, maintaining strong internal defences is essential. The ability to attack and exploit known vulnerabilities has literally become child's play and can even be executed from mobile phones and tablets. Due to a combination of free access to the required tools, simple user interfaces, readily available information and video learning on how to use the tools and a general teenage desire to "mess around", any unpatched and out of date systems accessible from networks that students are attached to is a recipe for disaster.

Simon Harbridge: Yes. I wonder if enough schools consider that these sorts of attacks can come from within? There's a lot of focus still on the safeguarding issues sites such as ratemyteacher put into play, but more needs to be understood about the basics, such as the fact that without support on obsolete products, you are also without security, so the bottom line is, everybody in the school, and that school's data is vulnerable, regardless of the policies, internet management software or pupil education schemes you have in place.

Jay Abbott: Ofsted focuses on digital safeguarding and the penalties for failure to make sure the standards are heavy, and lots of schools understand that. But more needs to be done to promote understanding that technology's role in your Ofsted rating doesn't begin and end with the device in the child's hand. I would urge Ofsted themselves to speak more about this and offer clearer guidance.

Simon Harbridge: We met with David Brown, the ICT lead at Ofsted and had a very interesting conversation about data protection and the lack of awareness in schools of its importance. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) can, and will turn its attention to education soon - the NHS has recently been audited and the public sector must be held accountable for the information it safeguards. Schools should be thinking about the safety and security of their pupil and teacher data as a matter of course, before any increased scrutiny begins.

Jay Abbott: Yes, and again, data compliance and security is a 'back office' issue. Education really needs to continue to get its entire house in order, not just the front line of technology. 

Want to think like a CEO? Try thinking like a 14 year old first

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This is a guest blog by professor Steve Ross-Talbot, senior director and venture leader, Cognizant

If you set a group of year nine pupils a challenge, it is striking how creative they can be. In a brainstorm, it always impresses me how they are able to immediately think laterally and intuitively, pulling in reference points from their friends, family, their environment and their use of modern technologies like social media. Having run similar sessions with groups of experienced executives, it is fascinating to see that these students most accurately reflect the role of the CEO, who has to approach all new ideas with an open mind.

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This was one of the discussion points at the latest 'Insight Day' held at the Cognizant London offices earlier this month, in conjunction with Teach First and attended by students from five schools in the Hounslow area. As part of Cognizant's STEM/STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) initiative designed to get children enthused about science and technology subjects, the pupils brainstormed wearable technology ideas, coming up with genuinely perceptive innovations.  These included a football shin-pad with a chip to highlight diving or injuries, and a hat for explorers with GPS and a panic button synced with rescue operations. As part of the panel at the event, I was astonished at the creativity exhibited by the pupils and the energy and enthusiasm they showed in brainstorming and presenting business ideas.

This type of initiative is hugely important if we are to actively tackle the STEM/STEAM skills shortage in the UK. Figures from 2013 from the Digital Skills for Tomorrow revealed that around 745,000 additional workers with digital skills will be needed to meet the rising demands between 2013 and 2017 in the UK, with 900,000 vacancies across Europe by 2020 according to European Commission numbers.

In order to meet this shortfall, it is essential that businesses and schools work together to engage students at an early age by demonstrating the variety and range of career options available to them. Brainstorming STEM/STEAM ideas with relevance to the students' everyday lives certainly helps, but in fact just travelling to Canary Wharf and getting a taste of office life - even if just for one day - can be a real eye opener. Running the session outside of the school environment also helps it to be memorable. Since the Insight Day, the teachers involved have told us that the students remained engaged with the topic and even wanted to continue researching and brainstorming more ideas.

Something else which was particularly encouraging was the role which the girls played in their teams. With daily reports that the STEM/STEAM skills shortfall is particularly acute amongst women who, despite making up 46 per cent of the UK's work force, fill only 16% of IT and telecoms professional occupations, it was fantastic to see the girls at the event actively engaging with the discussions and often leading the presentations. With news also showing that less than 5% of girls in OECD countries contemplate pursuing a STEM/STEAM career, events which engage females at school age are crucial if we are to find greater balance in the future.

Crucially, with over 75% of new jobs in the next five years requiring STEM/STEAM expertise, the industry must recognise the need to increase the number and diversity of students in these subjects, working alongside the education system to encourage them to enter this field.

Days like these where we come together to give the pupils an opportunity to air their ideas in a setting like Cognizant shows them how their imagination can lead to significant results; as an outcome of this event, it is highly likely we will have seen at least one future entrepreneurial millionaire. Sparking new ideas is hugely rewarding and a proven way in which to encourage school children: one that should also inspire experienced business people to think a bit more like their inner 14 year old.  

Poor leadership the biggest barrier to workplace flexibility

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This is a guest blog by Steve Gandy, CEO at MeetingZone.

No one should be in any doubt that technology can enable people to work together anytime, anywhere any place and on any device. But although the UK's flexible working policy has been in effect since 2014 it's clear from recent research by Censuswide and Unify  that organisations are still failing to enable employees to benefit from working remotely.

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With today's employees being able to email, access networks and manage tasks on the move - why does everyone need to be in the office all the time, at the same time? And what's really blocking the adoption of flexible working practices?

Enabling cultural change

One of the key reasons is poor leadership from many of the people who head up UK businesses. Many company leaders continue to fight against new ways of working, happily burying their heads in the sand - taking the "if I can't see 'em working, they can't be working approach." But take this decision at your peril - increasingly your competitors aren't taking the same laid back approach and you may find that you get left behind!

The reality is cultural change has to happen within an organisation to make flexibility work, and that change needs to kick in from the top. When leaders buy into the concept of flexible working, it doesn't take long for the domino effect to cascade swiftly throughout the rest of the organisation.  To engender this change, senior management need to show a real desire to use technology, train employees on it and then trust them to get on with the job.  Unless they do, all the investment in technology in the world won't have any impact.

Tech at your fingertips

Of course, we all know you can't always replace traditional 'face-to-face' interaction. And I'm not suggesting that remote working is the only way - it won't work for all businesses - but there are a lot of times when it's just not necessary to have everyone in one place.

It's about utilising the array of unified communication solutions that are already available. Collaboration technologies such as WebEx or Microsoft Lync, offer a variety of options for organisations including desktop telephony and videoconferencing 'presence' (the ability to see when someone is online and available), instant messaging, screen-sharing and interactive whiteboarding. Most of these have been around for some years and can easily replicate face-to-face communications. 

If embraced properly technology can be enabler of business change and has the potential to substantially boost to UK PLC. We've seen companies in diverse sectors like legal, construction and not for profit see immediate benefits with decisions being made on-the-fly, meetings taking place in real time and on-the-go. Many employers see a real boost in business agility, not to mention a significant reduction in the cost of travel and subsistence.

And it's all easily achievable and will make companies more effective and efficient in the long term. So come on UK leaders - time to embrace change in the way we do business now and in the future.


From lab to market - Part 1

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This is a guest blog from Phil Tee, chairman and CEO of Moogsoft. This is the first installment of a three-part series that speaks to navigating the challenges for tech startups in working with universities to accelerate innovation and business goals.

1.       How do tech startups consider partnership with universities and when is it valuable?

There has been a long-standing tradition of partnering between established companies and academic institutions to drive innovation. Today, this type of collaboration is booming in the US and the UK, due to policies being created in both regions by higher education authorities to foster these relationships.

However, when it comes to tech startups, the collaboration could go deeper and be more meaningful. One of the obvious reasons for the cultural disconnect is that startups (venture-backed, Silicon Valley entities, especially) are commercially motivated to pursue academic research. Universities, conversely, are bastions of domain specific knowledge looking to answer big questions and make great leaps in their respective fields. The major differentiator here is time. In the case of startups, VCs are funding 18 months of operational costs, but for researchers, that timeline barely covers pursuit of an advanced degree.

So, once this differentiation is accepted, how can these two spheres be aligned enough to make the end result resonate?

Clearly, corporate and academic partnerships can be a win-win proposition for both sectors. For tech startups, these collaborations can be a strategic addition of resources into R&D projects that they may not have bandwidth or talent internally to complete. In addition, they can add a robust recruiting pool for future staffing needs. For universities, these partnerships create an ongoing opportunity for testing the rigor of theories, or leveraging existing patents towards real-world applications. The resulting synergy is that of an engineering/design model tailored to the dynamics of a specific business use case.

But how do tech startups identify the most opportune times to partner with universities? Based on my experience gained over the past 20 years and across three startups, these are the key areas for consideration:

  • ·         Exploratory Phase: As a startup evaluates a market opportunity in a new technical or business area, it may seek additional input and a venue for testing key concepts. University researchers can often help to support these needs and validate differentiators for the initial idea/technology.
  • ·         Data Analysis: Especially in the case of a startup working with large quantities of data, university researchers can support computational analysis. Since graduate labs are often working with data sets in novel ways, academic researchers can act as a new set of eyes for a business problem that has a data component. Such was the case here at Moogsoft, as we wanted to apply a data-driven approach to solving important IT operational management problems.
  • ·         Technical Challenges: If a company encounters a technical log jam, university partners can add value by taking on a piece of that challenge and addressing it part-by-part in collaboration with the startups' R&D team. If left lingering too long, these challenges may monopolize the startups team's time and impede technical and business processes.

At Moogsoft, we've built an ongoing relationship with those pursuing an advanced level of data science at a leading UK university. This collaboration has helped develop our machine learning technology, creating a significant competitive advantage. For a tech startup like ours, this type of partnership has produced a real impact on accelerating our differentiation and has allowed us to accomplish more as a startup.

Phil Tee is Chairman and CEO of Moogsoft. The second installment of this series will focus on managing intellectual property rights to move product innovations from lab to market.

Making the most of the 'Tech Cities' battle

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This is a guest blog from Geoff Smith, Managing Director of Experis, an IT recruitment specialist

Despite the capital's prominence as the home of silicon roundabout start-ups, Shoreditch design houses, and global banks and insurance companies, the UK's boom in IT job creation is more than just a London success story. The government's recent Tech Nation report and our own Tech Cities Job Watch (TCJW) both reveal a fierce hunt for top IT talent across all corners of Britain. The reality is, job seekers are firmly back in the driving seat and employers need to make themselves aware of the market trends to ensure an important competitive edge in the battle for talent. 

In the midst of a protracted skills shortage, there's little room for employers to be complacent when it comes to finding the people with the right experience to fulfill IT and digital needs. The Tech Nation report revealed that 74% of digital companies in the UK now operate outside of London. The knock-on effect is that clusters of experienced IT professionals with the sought-after skills are moving outside of the obvious hiring grounds of London, leaving our capital's businesses with no choice but to extend their recruitment search across the UK for the skills they require.

Our first TCJW report showed that 'Tech Cities' such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Newcastle and Edinburgh have emerged as areas where multiple companies are looking to find talented IT professionals with in-demand skills. Whilst many of the emerging cities have great transport links, London-based companies that wish to access talent based in these areas should consider reviewing their flexible or remote working policies to attract some of the talent back. 

Another factor employers need to consider when looking for talent is that soft skills can be just as vital as technical skills. We regularly speak to companies that have employed people solely for their tech prowess and later realise that they also need people who can share their knowledge with others and communicate the value of new developments to management, such as emerging programming languages. They need to be able to interrogate data and present it to varying audiences in plain English.

The expansion of opportunities outside the capital has big implications for candidates too, putting them in the driving seat with greater control over their careers and multiple options for location, salary and work life balance. Skilled IT candidates who have developed their experience and skillset over several years are in a strong position to find excellent job opportunities. Those who are willing to travel for work can explore lucrative contractor roles, commanding day rates averaging £521 for Cloud positions in Bristol and £600 for Big Data positions in Cambridge. 

The TCJW report showed that Mobile Development skills were in massive demand across the country. This area has grown rapidly in recent years, with a particular demand for android, iOS and Ruby on Rails development skills. Web developers are also in high demand, particularly those who can work confidently with back-end .Net, Java and SQL skills and front-end UI, UX and visual design skills.

There is a growing need for IT Security skills as employers look to improve their defence against the increasing number of cyber threats. They will be looking very favourably on candidates with CLAS, Cyber Security and Information Security skills. 

These highly sought after skills have a tendency to gather where there are opportunities. For example, Cambridge is leading the cities outside London for permanent Mobile Development and Web Development pay, with average salaries reaching £41,032 and £39,750 respectively. Meanwhile, Glasgow is leading on Big Data (£45,300) and IT Security (£50,804) and Birmingham on Cloud salaries (£52,684).

We intend to release our TCJW report on a quarterly basis to keep businesses updated on the trends shaping IT recruitment and enable candidates to make informed decisions based on the evolving opportunities across the country.

As demand for IT talent continues to outstrip supply, it will be increasingly important for employers to broaden their talent search in order to meet their current and future skills needs. Similarly, candidates will make themselves more attractive to employers if they ensure they are equipped with the latest technical and soft skills, and those who are flexible enough to work remotely or travel cross-country will be well positioned to secure the best jobs. As the battle of the Tech Cities rages on, a buoyant market for new jobs and opportunities will continue. IT pros and employers who embrace it will be the ones to watch.


SpacePortX open day in Manchester

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SpacePortX in Manchester are holding an open day this Friday, to invite people from the tech and startup scene to view its space and hear about its mission.

On Friday 13 March from 3pm SpacePortX will open its doors to both fully-fledge businesses and startups for a Q&A and tour.

Doug Ward, Shaun Gibson and Martin Bryant are the founders of SpaceportX and are on a mission to ensure Manchester becomes a top five European startup destination. They also aim to develop the North West of England into a tech startup hub of the future.

Ward and Gibson are also the founders of Tech Britain, which mapped out the UK's tech startup scene. Both co-founders are advisors to Number 10 Downing Street and the University of Manchester.

Following the Open Day SpacePortX will be hosting Silicon Drinkabout.

I visited SpacePortX on a recent trip up to Manchester and I would highly recommend dropping in to see their amazing space and to meet the people who work there.

You can find out more information and register your place here.

We have to do a better job of "PR-ing" apprenticeships

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Roger Thorpe, chairman of CCE share why he believes today's apprentices are our future entrepreneurs

According to the government's website, in 1914 dress making was the most popular apprenticeship, followed by engineering.  In 2014 dress making is not even on the list and engineering slides to number nine.  At a time when we should be focused on building high value products and services it is disappointing to see one of the core skills for the fashion industry not in the top ten and engineering continuing to lag.  Indeed it is my view that apprentices should be seen as the future business leaders and entrepreneurs, who will drive growth for this country.  However, as a report by Demos shows we clearly have to do a much better "PR job" on Apprenticeships.roger.jpg

The Commission on Apprenticeships Report admits that there is a lack of "parity of esteem" for technical and vocational learning.  Indeed while all agree apprenticeships are a vital cog in our economy only 15% of employers offer such schemes compared to more than half of employers in Germany.  Sadly there is a sense of institutionalised attitudes towards apprenticeships, which we must tackle.  For example one survey of parents suggested that only one fifth viewed apprenticeships as having the same status as university education despite over 90% saying apprenticeships are a good thing.  However, I would suggest it is not just this over-emphasis on university education that is the problem.  It is also a fault of focusing on the wrong type of apprenticeships, which has led to a misunderstanding of its benefits for business and society.

For example, I do not want to be condescending towards the other apprenticeships that appear on the Government's 2014 top ten, but it concerns me that business administration and management are the number two and three in the list.  Are we really creating a nation of managers?  These skills are important, but they do not create business value in anywhere near the same amount as specialised skills.  If Britain wants to lead the world and drive economic growth this has to be addressed.  That is underlined in the Demos report, which says 72% of businesses who have apprentices see an increase in productivity and apprentices can expect to earn 18% more having completed an advanced programme.  Such a crucial message is key to underlining the value of these schemes and addressing this "esteem" issue.

With National Apprenticeship Week taking place this week, my own career path has been brought to mind and how the journey started out thanks to an apprenticeship scheme.  My first "break" was as an apprentice engineer with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) which went on to become British Airways.  While I was there I was exposed to a wide variety of experiences and built up skills, which have stood me in good stead throughout my working life.  For example, I learned about using tools, devising repair schemes, process planning, and working on design in the Drawing Office. During my post apprenticeship period (sometimes called Journeymanship) I helped to build a real time reservations system and that knowledge - in part - helped me to secure a role with Clarkson's Holidays, designing and installing real-time reservations systems.

I have been lucky enough work for some of the major brands in the UK, including George Wimpy and ICL, before going on to set up CCE, so I believe I have a great deal to thank apprenticeships for as a way into the workplace.

Apprenticeships benefit everyone

When I see young people of all backgrounds and abilities struggling to find job opportunities - or even work experience - I can't help but think apprenticeships could have a far more important role to play.  We do need a more skilled workforce, but it is wrong to view higher education as the be all and end all.  Apprenticeships mix valuable learning with even more valuable on-the-job experience, which businesses have admitted is a key factor when decided who to hire.  From the student's perspective there should also be more flexibility built into the language used around apprenticeship schemes.  If you start out as an apprentice car mechanic or engineer it does not necessarily mean you will end up in that role.

Today our family business, CCE, enjoys a turnover of around £20 million and serves a wide range of blue chip corporate clients.  I would argue that part of our success is due to the fact that when I set up the business I brought with me a library of knowledge from all my previous roles.  Above all, starting out as an apprentice ignited a desire for learning and developing new skills that has always stuck with me.  Perhaps if apprenticeships were seen as a gateway to bigger and better things, a means to encourage a permanent cycle of career development, they would offer businesses and apprentices even greater value.

Apprenticeships are the answer to the war for talent

As the chairman of our family business I see great value in apprenticeships, which is why we have sponsored several students through Brunel University.   We are sponsoring a new undergraduate through  university education next year who has already worked for us during his vacations.  While we do not have the resources of larger companies, we want to make our contribution and as a medium sized business we see huge benefit for us.

 It shows a potential employee that we are invested in his or her future, which clearly helps with employee retention.  Additionally, we are able to bring in new skills and compete for talent that we might otherwise lose to larger competitors.  Above all we have found apprentices reciprocate and show huge dedication to our business, which of course benefits our customers and growth. 

The government has asked British business to pledge its support for apprenticeships and while we are not participating directly in the scheme I do feel we are contributing.  I would ask other business leaders - especially in the engineering and technology sectors - to weigh up the benefits of this scheme and help our future generations kick start their careers.  Business leaders should view these committed individuals as the entrepreneurs, who will drive their future business growth.

How Maker Faires are boosting STEM skills

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This is a guest blog by Phil Dunmore, ‎head of consulting UK at Cognizant.

Over the last few years there has been a lot of interest in Maker Faires in the US and the Maker Movement. Many have heralded the Maker Movement as bringing about the third industrial revolution by creating a community of entrepreneurs who, in general, are highly skilled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM). These communities act like multi-generational incubators of creativity and innovation. The direct result of this is that the next generation of budding Makers are focusing on boosting their STEM skills in order to be involved, and succeed in, this movement.

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The creator of Maker Faire, Dale Dougherty, describes it as a gathering of "artists, scientists, craftsmen and engineers who seem to belong together, connected by enthusiasm and common passion where we see innovation in the wild." Four years later as the White House held its first Maker Faire, US President Obama remarked that, "If you can imagine it, then you can do it--whatever it is. And that's a pretty good motto."

Companies in all industries are looking for innovators - not just inventors. At the same time, much attention is focused on the innovation deficit in the U.K. and lack of proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines and how to address the shortfall. How can we harness the Maker Movement to inspire the next generation of innovators here in the UK?

Cognizant's view is that creativity and innovation coupled with STEM are essential to producing the products and services we will need in the future. For this reason we need to focus on both STEM and the arts - sometimes referred to as "STEAM." And moving beyond competitiveness, we believe that education, and particularly STEM education, is the fundamental sustainability issue of our time, since the solutions to poverty, global health issues and climate change will require a highly educated and STEM-literate population.

The mission of Cognizant's Making the Future education initiative is to make STEM fun through hands-on learning opportunities. We believe strong STEM literacy coupled with creativity and collaboration will help prepare the next generation to drive innovation and growth in our global economy.

Making the Future is important for many reasons. Hands-on project-and design-based learning approaches are more consistent with the cognitive processes and learning styles we attribute to the millennial generation and younger. These approaches spark creativity, critical thinking and collaboration. They "pull" kids into STEM disciplines by generating interest and confidence, rather than "pushing" them to do better in maths and science. The Maker Movement, with its emphasis on do-it-yourself (DIY) and do-it-with-others (DIWO) projects, provides a strong community and supporting philosophy that inspires this type of creative learning and can appeal to both girls and boys across a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. 

Tomorrow's STEM jobs will place increased demands on the development of new STEM competencies. We no longer live in an Industrial Economy - we are firmly implanted in the Knowledge Economy, or what some call the era of digital business, in which we compete on code. New technologies are revolutionising the future of work created by global and virtual environments made up of millennial workers and consumers. Technical skills are not relevant forever, but transforming an individual into a life-long learner is enduring. Making the Future emphasises the process or the "doing" of the project, encouraging collaboration, interdisciplinary problem-solving, risk-taking and the intrinsic motivation. These qualities will be at the core of the change-makers of tomorrow.

Traditional approaches alone are not meeting the demands of future jobs or preparing a trajectory of success for the next generation of workers. Innovation is about taking something we have done traditionally and adapting it so it allows us to run better and run differently.

Today's inspiration is tomorrow's innovation.

IT jobs in the East of England offers opportunities to progress

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This is a guest blog by Scott Woodrow, associate director at Pure Resourcing Solutions, a recruitment consultancy firm in the East of England.

With IT being the fastest growing industry in the UK, it's probably not too surprising that we're seeing a significant skills shortage, especially in the areas of web development and software engineering.

I work for Pure Resourcing Solutions (Pure) - a leading recruitment consultancy firm in the East of England.

We're finding that the IT job market has become particularly buoyant in the last year in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. And over the next 12 months we expect to see new technology vacancies emerging as the regional economy strengthens.

Many local employers are struggling to fill permanent IT vacancies, but they're offering competitive salaries and generous benefit packages to attract and retain the best talent. This trend is expected to intensify throughout 2015.

According to data from Compare My Salary (the UK's only live peer-to-peer salary comparison website), senior wages in the eastern counties exceed £100,000, and almost one quarter earn between £40,000 and £49,999. Annual bonuses range from £300 to £15,000.

We're also seeing more people escaping long commutes and crowds of big city life as they relocate to this region.

Trends across the counties

North Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk are seeing growing SMEs advertising for new IT staff to support their development. With around 548,000 SMEs in the East of England alone, these opportunities are probably set to increase as SMEs engage more with customers through digital channels. As a result, more roles are emerging in user experience, e-commerce and data management, as well as traditional IT support.

Also, SMEs in our region need IT staff with non-traditional skillsets. We know of digital marketing agencies that are looking for developers for client-facing roles, for example.

Ipswich has an established financial industry in need of more IT professionals. Plus, with increasing business investment in the local start-up scene, the signs here are very positive for plenty of new jobs.

And if job seekers want to work with bigger names, the East of England is also home to employers including BT, Aviva, KLM, Konica and Benefit Cosmetics.

But I couldn't talk about the region without mentioning Cambridge - one of the world's centres of technology. Research shows that the city is the best place to look for work, with 10 vacancies to every job seeker.

Dubbed 'Silicon Fen', Cambridge is home to successful technology firms, making it a strong contender to London. Also, the city is thought to have 18% of the UK's £1bn gaming industry - it's home to companies such as Jagex and Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios.

Cambridge's innovation cluster includes global names such as ARM, CSR and Microsoft Research, and Apple is due to open an office here. And with some of the world's brightest minds and global commercial deals, it's safe to say that the options for IT workers will remain excellent.

But job seekers shouldn't focus on the city - we're seeing many more progressive employers around the eastern region now offering opportunities for long-term career development.

More than a salary

Although income is a key factor, we're hearing that IT candidates want more from a new job. They also want to work for a business with vision, to work with the latest systems, and to push their professional boundaries. They also want to know whether the business is a good employer.

In response, regional employers are promoting themselves more openly when recruiting, so candidates can get to know the company behind the job.

Take Adnams in Suffolk for example. The brewery is currently recruiting an IT Director so Pure is promoting its brand including its award-winning status as a 'Best Employer', to attract high-calibre people.

Finally, some advice

Overall, the job market in the East of England is certainly a viable alternative to the more traditional hubs such as London and the M4 corridor. The job market is ripe for people seeking both permanent and contract roles. But I recommend job seekers sign up with just one recruitment agency: one with a good client list and one that will meet you in person to find out what you really want. It's the most effective route to finding the right job and the right employer.

Inspiring the next generation of Britain's tech pioneers

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This is a guest blog from Edwina Dunn, chair of the Your Life Campaign, which seeks to inspire young people by championing the range of career opportunities unlocked by studying maths and science.

Last week, the very latest in cutting-edge technology from around the world was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. While the programme was dominated by announcements from the likes of South Korean Samsung and LG and American Intel, British companies and entrepreneurs were few and far between.

Given Britain's track record of innovation, its under-representation at this year's convention is surprising.  From the first foray into computer programming led by Ada Lovelace in 1800s to Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the World Wide Web a century and a half later, the technology revolution has been led by those from the UK who are unafraid to challenge the way things are done.

To get Britain back to its best, we need both great innovation and great people. While there is no question about the quality of research produced in the UK, for this to make a real impact on the world stage, Britain must address its current skills deficit. According to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the UK suffers from an annual shortfall of 40,000 STEM-skilled workers. By 2030 7.1 million UK jobs will rely on science skills a 1.3 million increase on today's number. If we are to meet this demand, young people must be encouraged to continue studying science and maths after these subjects are no longer compulsory.

Far too few young people, even the highest performers, are gaining the essential skills acquired through studying science and maths to university level - for example 80% of girls who achieve an A* grade in physics GCSE do not continue the subject to A Level. The careers of the future will rely on the skills learned through STEM subjects, and it is vital that we inspire the next generation with the full range of possibilities they unlock.

While 79% of young people would consider a STEM career, 51% say they know little or nothing about the type of jobs on offer. CES itself is a great example of the careers possible for individuals with a solid foundation in STEM subjects - from self-driving and hydrogen cars to virtual reality headsets. Only with these examples will we be able to confront traditional perceptions of science and maths and make the real link between exciting jobs and STEM skills.

This is the idea behind our Formula 100 competition, which invites schoolchildren aged 11-18 from across the country to submit a 30 second video, describing what they would invent and why. The competition will work to build an ongoing membership group of 100 students, who will be offered the support of entrepreneurs and business figures to help guide their career choices.

If Britain is going to lay its claim firmly on the technology of the future, it is of the utmost importance to inspire a culture of innovation among schoolchildren. Only by emphasising the tangible and exciting applications of the skills learned in maths and science, will Britain be able to motivate its next generation of world-class innovators. 


Perception of IT careers changing for the better

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This is a guest blog by Graham Hunter, vice president of skills certification Europe and Middle East at CompTIA.

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The Skills Show is the UK's biggest skills fair where minds of the future get a taste of what the world of work looks like. CompTIA was there in November 2014, where we were busy demonstrating the exciting opportunities that a career in IT can lead to and the kinds of skills that the industry needs. Together with our friends at Bletchley Park, Intel, Birmingham City University, Remote Training Solutions, Rapid Education and Fuze, we had a number of activities on show, from programmable Lego sets, football playing robots to code breaking tasks. 

Whilst at the Skills Show, we surveyed pupils and teachers that came to our stand to delve into what they thought of the IT sector. The responses showed a shift in perception of the IT industry, with the sector starting to be seen as a more attractive place to work.

A shift in attitude:

In contrast to evidence from the last few years that has shown young people perceive IT as a 'geeky' and 'boring' subject, the vast majority of pupils we spoke to indicated that they thought IT is a cool subject and were aware of the variety of activities that IT consists of. There is more of an awareness amongst young people of the programming and computer science behind most of the devices we use every day, which is something that we arguably lacked just a few years ago.

One of the major steps that has undoubtedly contributed to this - and will continue to help in the future - was this year's revamp in the ICT curriculum across the UK. In its place is the new Computing curriculum, which sees pupils learn more fundamental skills such as coding and programming, rather than one dimensional lessons on how to use software. Through lessons like these, kids are starting to learn the practical applications of IT, and this was reflected in some of their comments on the day. Many pupils, for example, were particularly excited about how simple coding can be used to programme Lego cranes and bridges to move according to instructions they set them.

Security is also slowly but surely making its way into children's use of technology. Intel ran a small security related activity, which highlighted how easy it is to get hold of personal information from Instagram posts. Pupils who took part were surprised at how easy it was, and suggested that they would take more precautionary steps in the future.

More to do:

This positive feedback is welcome news at a time when the UK is facing a huge digital skills shortage. In 2013, CompTIA research found that a quarter of UK Businesses planned to hire additional IT staff, yet saw challenges in finding qualified and experienced workers. Unsurprisingly, 48% of business respondents indicated a concern for current IT labour quantity or quality.

Whilst the majority of pupils have a positive perception of the IT industry, that is still half the battle and we as an industry know that we can still be doing more to address the skills gap. There are a number of ways we can make this happen and make IT more engaging for kids - such as independent industry initiatives like Raspberry Pi Foundation's multiple creative projects.

Tom Briggs, Education Officer at Bletchley Park, who was demonstrating the Engima Machine with us at the Skills Show suggested that there still is opportunity for further integration of Computing into the curriculum. Computing underpins most of what we do in the real world - and elements of the course should be integrated more closely into other subjects so pupils are further exposed to how IT makes the world function.

These thoughts were echoed by Duncan Maidens at Birmingham City University who argued that kids aren't seeing enough of how IT relates to other fields like engineering and design for example. They are only seeing one small part of the sea of possibilities at present. This engagement ultimately starts with teachers he argues; any change begins with them.

Perhaps this is where work around breaking stereotypes starts too. Seventeen out of 20 pupils said that a typical IT worker is male; a gender role perception that has not changed much at all. The fact that stereotypes like this still exist does still show there is work to be done, despite an overall shift in attitude. 

Going a step further, there is still room to improve on the new curriculum itself. By introducing a broader range of practical IT skills, in addition to coding, we can ensure that the IT workforce of tomorrow is equipped to deal with future challenges of all types. But this can't happen unless we provide teachers with the right training - many IT teachers aren't specialists in tech. We need to make sure that both teachers and students are equipped with the tools required to bring concepts to life in a practical way. CompTIA is launching a new web resource in 2015, called Skills Boost which will help students identify the range of career options available in IT, and provide clear career paths, showing the training required for each job.

But despite the doom and gloom surrounding the shortage of skilled IT workers, our conversations with pupils shows that IT is becoming more desirable and more practical. While solving the skills gap is not a short term project, the future does look to be filled with bright minds that understand that IT is a crucial part of what makes the world go round. 

Inspiring the next generation of STEM talent

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This is a guest blog by Phil Dunmore, vice president of Cognizant Business Consulting.

The issue of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills - or lack thereof - among the next generation is never far from the news agenda. It has been suggested by many organisations, including the Confederation of British Industry, that the UK faces a serious shortage of graduates in these subjects and that the consequences are serious enough to threaten our future economic prosperity. Several steps have been taken to try and address this, from the addition of coding to the National Curriculum to a newly revealed, government backed campaign to increase participation in maths, science, and physics A-levels by 50%.

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But there is also a vital role here for technology orientated companies. We all have a vested interest in keeping the UK at the forefront of STEM innovation, and in attracting the best talent to come work for us, particularly when research suggests that a lack of relevant careers advice was a major factor in students not pursuing STEM-based further education or jobs. At Cognizant, this is a topic that's close to our hearts and one where we are taking action.

A couple of weeks ago, we held the latest in a series of events where local pupils come in for a day to spend some time with some of our recent graduates and learn more about what a career in STEM looks like at Cognizant. These 'Insight Days' take place regularly in our offices across the world, but on this occasion we welcomed thirty Year 9 students from two secondary schools in Newham and Fulham to our UK headquarters in Paddington. In the morning, the students took part in some interactive games around technology innovation and heard from our graduates about what studying STEM subjects at university is like. Then the afternoon saw me and three senior colleagues act as the 'dragons' in a Dragons' Den style challenge about wearable technology.

This exercise in particular allowed the students to express their creativity and teamwork skills, whilst also learning about how frequently STEM related topics touch our everyday lives. The students were divided into seven teams, with a mix of pupils from each school, and given a vertical market to target, ranging from Sports & Fitness to Transport. They then had just one hour to come up with a new wearable technology solution, thinking about everything from design and functionality to audience and marketing strategy. It might seem familiar to anyone who watched a recent episode of The Apprentice, but with one key difference: the ideas that were generated were actually really quite interesting.

They included a ring that would allow teachers to track the emotions of their students to better understand their engagement and attention during lessons, a smartwatch that would allow the wearer to transmit movements into video games and a smart shoe that would track the wearer's health as well as store energy from walking to recharge a phone. My fellow dragons and I were all seriously impressed with their ideas, which were all based on highly relevant insights and market trends. For example, healthcare in the wearables market is currently an extremely hot topic, and almost every idea presented to us looked to capitalise on that trend. The students also showed very strong collaborative skills, forging relationships with pupils from another school, brainstorming and then presenting their ideas in little more than an hour.

When discussing what had been learnt from the day, the pupils talked about the extent to which they are surrounded by STEM but often do not realise it - whether at school, at home or out with their friends. By showing how subjects normally perceived as 'boring' such as maths or physics relate to students' everyday lives, we can hopefully create a meaningful connection that demonstrates their relevance and drives curiosity as to where they could take the technology next. The other huge benefit of the day was to give the students a taste of the real working environment.  As one teacher put it to me: "This has been a truly invaluable experience; it has provided my maths students with a great opportunity to get out of the classroom to understand what exciting opportunities exist.  They have all been left highly motivated".

It let them see what life at a company like Cognizant is like and got them to consider, perhaps for the first time, what their careers after finishing education could look like. There are also benefits for us too. It is always very valuable to spend time with young people in this way, exploring the issues that matter to them and hearing first-hand how they view and interact with technology.

One important point to note is that the pursuit of STEM studies does not necessarily need to be entirely at the detriment of the Arts or STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and maths). Creativity, lateral thinking and the ability to communicate are crucial skills in progressing through the ranks in an organisation, which is why we support those from the CBI and other bodies who have recently stated that pupils should also be strongly encouraged to learn a language or other creative subject.

It is our hope that initiatives like the Insight Days succeed in putting STEM subjects back on students' agendas. Getting the next generation enthused about STEM, and showing them how much of their everyday life is connected to it, is crucial if we want the best talent to come into the industry and continue to push boundaries in the future. The government has been taking action, but those of us in the industry need to do our part too.

Closing the STEM skills gap starts in the classroom

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This is a guest blog by Pete Baxter, vice president and head of Autodesk UK.

The lack of STEM skills in the UK is a topic that is continuing to make new headlines. Just recently the Labour party took to social media stating that by 2020 the UK will need 780,000 trained engineering professionals in order to meet industry demands, yet we are currently only training less than half that number. While this growth in demand is a good sign for the industry, it is concerning that we are not on track to fulfil this need for skilled workers.

Of course this problem is not just limited to engineering; at the beginning of the year Semta (the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies) claimed it faced a shortfall of 80,000 workers within the next two years alone. In March the CBI called for major action to be taken to address a STEM skills vacuum. 

So it was encouraging to see from our recent research that over half (52%) of 11-18 year olds want to pursue a career in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Digital Arts and Maths) related industries.  Note that the 'A' that has snuck in here stands for digital arts, an area arguably as important to our future economy as science, technology, engineering and maths - just look at the strength of the UK film, gaming and visual effects sector as evidence of this.

We've all heard and shared the concerns about the appetite for STEAM skills amongst the next generation. The various arguments go that: schools want to focus on 'easy' subjects to get up the league tables, students themselves would rather do 'less challenging' subjects, and even those pupils that do show an interest in STEAM subjects will ultimately end up getting swallowed up by the financial sector as they look for higher salaries.

While there may be grains of truth in some of these arguments, it is great to see that there is actually a real enthusiasm for careers in these industries amongst the next generation. If we as a country can nurture this enthusiasm within our classrooms we can develop the skilled workforce we need to succeed in the future. But this is where the potential problem lies. In the same piece of research more than half of pupils (57%) said a lack of access to technology is stopping them from using more of it in the classroom while a third (33%) also said they don't feel their school knows enough about new technology.

There are some fantastic examples of schools and higher education establishments in the UK doing amazing things to inspire their pupils in STEAM subjects. A secondary school like East Barnet is a great example of how innovative teachers can expose students to engineering and design principles using technologies like robotics and 3D printing in a classroom setting. In post-secondary education, students at New College Lanarkshire have benefited from receiving the highest level of training combined with access to industry leading software to progress into a range of industries from oil and gas to aerospace to ship building to media and entertainment.

However if we really want to create the skilled workforce of the future we need to provide secondary school students with regular hands-on access to highly visual and creative tools and technologies, while older students need the opportunity to master professional tools and techniques to ensure they hit the ground running when they begin their STEAM careers. This is part of the issue, and one Autodesk is helping to tackle by providing free access to every secondary and post-secondary institution in the UK.

In addition, industry leaders also could and should do more to open the eyes of the younger generation to the various opportunities that careers in STEAM related industries offer. More needs to be done for example to highlight the variety of roles and skills required within industries such as construction or engineering. Technological advances are opening up new career possibilities that might not have existed years ago, potentially appealing to a generation more interested and skilled in technology than previous ones.

Advances in accessible 3D design and fabrication technology are disrupting design, engineering and entertainment professions as we know them. The rise in mobile and cloud technology has also made it possible to design anywhere, at any time. However, the progress that we have seen technology make in the commercial world needs to find its way into today's classrooms. Until we succeed in bridging this gap, stories on shortages of STEAM skills may continue to be the norm. 

No classroom required?

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Everything changes - no more so than in the world of technology. As tablets and mobile devices outsell laptops and desktops the opportunities for education abound. Students and teachers have access to a bewildering array of devices and software applications are rapidly moving from a device based model to

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Remember when you used to buy your office software on a CD and install it? Not now - you download it or simply point your cursor at a link. So, armed with a browser on their trusty smartphone or tablet, learners and teachers are freed up in ways they never dreamt of five years ago. Forget Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) - the new acronym is UMODD (Using My Own Device and Data)! James Penny, solutions director at European Electronique, shares his insight into how cloud computing can have a positive impact on education.

Better learning

Schools are about learning. All schools want to provide the best quality learning opportunities for the young people they serve. ICT is clearly an essential part of the learning environment in the 21st Century. But what we want is technology that sits seamlessly in the background, is ready to use when needed, always on and always up to date.

It needs to be simple but powerful yet easy to use. In fact, exactly what we get when we use our personal mobile devices. So why can't we bring that simplicity to the infrastructure of our schools? Well that's exactly what cloud technologies can do. Put simply - Cloud technology can support more powerful learning.

Cloud use and adoption

What is driving cloud adoption? Well it's quite simple really. When devices were big boxes that were fixed by a wire to a network point, things were somewhat limited. But as mobile phone networks grew in power and smartphones became less 'phone' and more 'smart', accessing data services from anywhere became a necessity. But where do you store data, applications and everything else if the device and the user are constantly wondering from place to place?

Well it's obvious...and so the 'Cloud' was born as a convenient way of explaining where your stuff was stored. In reality of course it sits in a physical data centre on servers. It is the access that has changed. With wearable technology set to become mainstream in the next couple of years, mobility will be the watchword.

Embracing the cloud

The most powerful model for education is the idea of a Hybrid Cloud. The hybrid approach looks at where best to store data based on how the data will be used. Bringing together the best of what is available for free on the web with what is best hosted in a private data centre or left on the physical site enables the creation of a flexible and very cost effective approach. Cloud infrastructure is of course based on a pay as you go model so you can move away from the endless issues of infrastructure that keeps going out of date. In the traditional approach as soon as you install your infrastructure it starts to age.

With a cloud model, you pay for a service so whatever is needed to keep the service at the same level is covered in the costs you pay. The cloud service provider updates the hardware and software as part of the costs you pay. This means that you can reduce the costs of supporting your infrastructure and just concentrate on the learning. You also only pay for what you use.

Classrooms Required?

With the range of services available via a web browser growing every day, combined with the proliferation of mobile personal devices, the opportunities for using cloud solutions in education are staggering. It is not fanciful to imagine that the role of the classroom will significantly change over the next five years. From being the place where facts are dispensed by a teacher at the front of the class, to a place where learners and teachers gather to debate and discuss, where facts and ideas can be explored and collated.

Learning will spill beyond the boundaries of the school and beyond the normal times, all powered and supported by cloud technologies that are cost effective and reliable. We'll never do away with schools and classrooms, however  the use of spaces in schools will change as well as the way we educate, as we prepare our young people for a world where the jobs they will do may not even have been thought of yet.

If you want to see what a mobile approach to technology can achieve, where classrooms have evolved and learning is liberated, then I would recommend looking at what the students and staff are doing at an academy on the Isle of Portland on the South Coast of England. The Isle of Portland Aldridge Community Academy, or IPACA to its friends, is a stunning example of how mobile devices and cloud technologies can be fully and successfully integrated into the everyday working life of students and staff.

They support BYOD and UMODD and have an enlightened view about making the most of free web based resources. Even their teachers are different. They have experts in cloud tools and they have a Director of Digital Learning and Innovation, Gary Spracklen, who is pushing the boundaries. As their Patron, the world renowned Stephen Heppell ( says: "We don't know how good our learners can be". By giving students the tools and the power of cloud technologies, IPACA are starting to see just what is possible. You'll see a future where learners push ahead at their own pace, developing the knowledge and skills that will set them up for a successful future. After all - it's all about learning!

Check out for more on what the future of learning really should be.

Can adopting a corporate philanthropy culture help in the attraction and retention of staff?

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This is a guest blog by Patrick Feast, director - training & development at IT recruiter Harris Global.

According to recent figures from KPMG, the technology sector is expanding faster than any other UK industry.  Not surprisingly, then, the latest report from recruitment body APSCo shows growth in IT job vacancies - but, worryingly, a drop in placement numbers as it becomes harder to find the right candidates.  Recruitment issues are therefore moving up the agenda for companies that want to make the most of the opportunities that industry growth can bring.

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To recruit and retain the best candidates, tech firms need to have a real point of difference that gives staff a reason to select them - and which is big enough to stop them being  tempted away by the competition or the lure of freelancing.  Of course, offering a good salary is an important starting point, but in our experience, that's not enough on its own.  Especially when you are looking the twenty-somethings who are fuelling the IT workforce.

Emerging 'Generation Y' has different values and desires compared to previous generations.  Debt from university fees and the seeming impossibility of buying property has actually made money a less motivating factor.  Increasingly they want to work for a business which looks beyond the profit sheet at making a positive impact on the lives of the people that work there, and also the wider community.

Companies with foundations based on genuine Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) values are starting to feel the benefit of this investment.  We have seen candidates with three job offers on the table reject the big corporations and big money, instead picking the smaller firms with philanthropic and environmental credentials. 

CSR is also a great long term motivator.  At Harris we work with a local organisation which helps  people with long-term mental health issues on the road back to full time employment, giving CV advice, interview practice and mentoring to its members.  This takes our staff, who are mainly in their twenties, well out of their comfort zone.  However, once they start doing it they love it, and many go on to volunteer for the charity in their own time too.  Interestingly, we have also found that adding a competitive element to CSR can work well too - dividing the company into two and seeing which team can raise the most money for a local charity.

Also, in the IT sector, we are seeing amongst Generation Y staff a growing desire to be part of 'real' communities as an antidote to the virtual ones created by social media.  CSR initiatives are a great way of creating a sense of community within a business, as well as real life connections that extend beyond the workplace.

It can be hard work for a business to implement ethical, sustainable and philanthropic practices but it's worth it.  It helps profitability through greater staff retention, but not only that, it also provides competitive advantage by helping businesses stand out to their clients and customers.  And if, on top of all that, it makes you feel great about coming to work on a Monday morning, that's an investment with a priceless return.

FDM's military personnel take to the streets for Poppy Appeal

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As a Royal British Legion Poppy Collector myself, I was pleased to hear that FDM Group had its own uniformed personnel supporting London Poppy Day this year.

In its efforts to close the IT skills gap the company offers a training programme for ex-military personnel, which was first launched in the US and came to UK shores in 2013.

Poppy FDM 1.jpg

The IT service provider put together a Corporate Office Collection Team of six uniformed military personnel, along with representatives from the British Legion and Barclaycard as well as FDM Ex-Forces consultants and employees who collected on behalf of the Royal British Legion's appeal.

The team took part in the London Poppy Day event, an initiative which began eight years ago when a small group of ex-military friends decided to pin on their medals and sell poppies over their lunch breaks around Lloyds of London. After collecting £500 in two hours they realised the potential in the idea and London Poppy Day was born.

This year the collection day ended at Leadenhall Market where the armed forces met to celebrate their efforts.

FDM Group has a strong background in supporting the armed forces.  In February this year it signed the Ministry of Defence's Armed Forces Corporate Covenant.

Poppy FDM 2.jpg

The Armed Forces Corporate Covenant enables businesses and charities to voluntarily pledge and outline publicly how they are willing to commit to the Armed Forces community.

In addition, FDM's UK Ex-Forces Programme offers ex-forces personnel IT training in several business and technical disciplines. The training is then followed by commercial experience at FDM for at least two years.

In the US FDM runs a Veteran's Programme which focuses on transitioning veterans into professional IT consultants. The company offers 17 weeks training at its New York based academy, and two years employment with FDM once fully qualified.

FDM's staff will also be amongst those starting the Poppy extraction process at the Tower of London this week. 

Inaccuracies in technology candidates' CVs: How the tech industry needs to respond

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This is a guest blog by Peter Robbins, managing director, of Mercato Solutions

I was taken aback by recent news that announced a worryingly high number of inaccuracies in technology candidates' CVs. The survey by First Advantage revealed that more than 37% of CVs submitted to technology companies have inconsistencies, a markedly higher number than the national average of 27%. Most alarmingly, just under a third of all these irregularities were found to be 'major,' with 45% of discrepancies found in the candidates' education history. 

This is particularly concerning given the current skills shortage within the IT sector. Recent figures indicate the industry is struggling to recruit the right talent and the problem is growing with the UK Council of Professors & Heads of Computing predicting a further 15% rise in IT jobs within the next ten yearsYet, 50% fewer graduates than a decade ago are seeking roles in our sector.  The shortfall gap is increasing.     

As the tech sector continues to lead growth in domestic and export markets, it is critical we get recruitment and development right to support innovation and growth.  This demands the industry as a whole, above and beyond London, to buoy national interest in our dynamic and exciting sector.  Several major growth hotspots exist in Birmingham and the North West, which overall will support the bigger industry mission to grow.       

As a software business, we have found it challenging to recruit developers and the latest CV related news is perhaps an indication of things to come unless the industry takes a lead to drive engagement between education and the commercial world, improving the way we train people and make them 'work ready'.  But, it is very important we do it in the right manner. 

Software development requires a great deal of skill and expertise, and by creating a long-term shared plan, we can build a pipeline of talented skilled professionals from the grass roots up.

Whilst it is early days for review, September's launch of the new 'code' focussed IT syllabus in schools could be a sound first step, assuming it is taught as a problem solving and engineering subject by teachers with relevant skills.  Hopefully it will teach students how to actually build software not just how to use it.       


As it stands we're going to have a gap as we wait for September's Year 1 intake to flourish and then we have to question how their early skills are going to be nurtured going forwards.


Apprenticeships and skills development programmes can go a long way in helping to tackle the CV issue. We have seen considerable success in taking on young dynamic people at an early stage in their tech careers as apprentices. The investment we place in young people means that in the end, we aren't just confident they have the skills - we know they do.


Train and retain

Allowing individuals to develop while in employment is valuable to both the employee and the employer. Investing time in young people that are willing to learn creates brand ambassadors who are trained in line with the ethos of the company and are familiar with certain processes and business-specific technology.

Nurturing this talent is so crucial and companies that retain apprentices as employees are likely to see the benefits - we certainly have.  As a result, we are committed to bridging the gap between education and employment, upskilling a local workforce and providing local apprenticeships for school leavers and young people. Within the business, we have actually used our own technology to upskill new trainees - all via a software platform that enables us to teach our apprentices how to build business applications within just 60 days of training. 

Industry effort

We need to work harder to make it clear to candidates that they needn't skirt around qualifications and experience on their CV. There's a problem if people are getting put off from telling the truth. Candidates should not feel they need to hide their passion for the industry, even if their skillsets do not reflect this. The tech industry needs to be shouting louder that it's this passion we're looking for and there are plenty of opportunities out there that can develop the skills to match!

If we want the British tech sector to grow we need to invest in our workforce - only then will we have a chance of bridging the skills gap and driving innovation.

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