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The correlation between creativity, diversity and the future tech workforce

Many believe the UK computing curriculum should put more emphasis on creativity to prepare young people for an automated future

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In 2014, the UK government announced the introduction of the new computing curriculum, which made it compulsory for children aged between five and 16 to learn technical skills such as computational thinking and coding.

By introducing these skills to youngsters from an early age, the government hoped to equip them for a digital future, as well as fill skills gaps that are currently estimated to be costing the UK economy £63bn a year.

But many fear that creativity, which will be just as important as code to the future of technology, is being left behind.

Tony Wheeler, project coordinator for classroom tech firm FormativeAssess, says “you can teach anyone to code”, but encouraging creativity is another matter. He feels creativity is being “sapped” from the education system.

Many employers complain that graduates are leaving university without the skills needed to fill empty technology roles, but a lack of interpersonal and soft skills is also a common gripe from tech firms when looking for skilled workers.

Teaching coding as part of the computing curriculum set out to fill skills gaps by addressing them at an earlier stage, but firms still say they need workers with both technical and soft skills – and they can’t find people with this mix of abilities.

Finding a mix of soft and technical skills is also an issue for the creative industries, with the games, animation and visual effects sectors finding it hard to find creative types with digital skillsets.

Wheeler says: “There are teachers and educators working on fantastic things that would liberate children to expand their capacity to do fantastic things, but the system is acting as a block for anything innovative and creative.”

But others say coding and programming are a creative endeavour that suffers from negative stereotyping rather than a lack of creativity – many teachers and parents do not encourage children into tech careers because they do not know what tech roles involve.

Not spoken about

Coding and programming were important additions to the curriculum to ensure no one falls behind in the tech-driven world of the future, but the creativity involved in technical skills such as coding are often “not spoken about”, says Chloe Grutchfield, director of product and data at Verve.

Grutchfield says that when she was studying Java at university, she was initially “terrified” at the thought of having to program, and had many of the misconceptions that others describe about the tech space – that it would be boring or too complex.

“I wasn’t particularly interested in computers and assumed it would be counterintuitive and boring,” she says. “Actually, it was neither and it turned out to be one of my favourite classes and one where I got some of my best grades. It is creative, but often this aspect isn’t talked about.”

There are teachers and educators working on fantastic things, but the system is acting as a block for anything innovative and creative
Tony Wheeler, FormativeAssess

Because many computing teachers do not have experience of the industry, and many children currently in education are likely to have jobs in the future that have yet to be created, it becomes increasingly difficult to promote the creativity that will be needed for future roles when teaching these subjects.

But Lyssa-Fêe Crump, catalyst of disruptive innovation at Headforwards, argues that creativity is often “championed” as part of the computing curriculum in schools, but teachers need more support in delivering these subjects to make the curriculum fit for purpose.

“Our primary school teachers are expected to teach a very broad range of subjects, and we often hear that there is not a lot of support for them to teach code,” she says.

“Children are naturally creative, which is clearly apparent if you spend time in a classroom full of them. What is needed is more support for the teachers to enable them to teach the coding part of the curriculum well in an engaging and creative way.”

Creativity and diversity

Many initiatives exist to encourage a diverse group of children into tech careers in the future, and it is widely believed that diversity breeds creativity and innovation for businesses.

It is also argued that more creative roles attract women into the tech space, and that supplying the opportunity to solve real-world problems is more likely to appeal to female candidates and encourage them into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem)-based roles.

But Crump says there is a danger in suggesting that women will only be interested in creative roles in the technology industry.

“We need to be careful not to suggest that women are only suited to working in creative roles and not technical ones,” she says. “This stereotype is quite damaging when trying to attract women into Stem activities.

“There are a considerable number of women who work successfully in Stem industries and they are just as passionate about the analytical/technical side of their career as the creative side.”

It has also been widely suggested that women could help to plug skills gaps in various parts of the tech industry, and many firms are focusing on retraining women for these roles.  

But Crump says skills gaps should be filled by both men and women. “We should be encouraging more females into the industry, but also more males,” she says. “There is a massive skills gap worldwide and we need to consider ways of inspiring people of either gender on this career path.”

Patrick Malatack, vice-president of product for Twilio, says that making it clearer, both inside and outside schools, that coding and development are ways to express creative ideas, will attract more people into these roles. 

“Seeing coding for what it is – a creative pursuit – has the potential to attract more diversity across the board,” he adds.

Creativity versus automation

Automation of certain tasks and processes is posing a threat to various jobs and industries, but it is widely thought that the more creative a role and the more emotional intelligence it requires to perform, the less likely it is to succumb to automation in the future.

Malatack says third-party software platforms such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Stripe and Twilio have helped to lower the “barriers to innovation” because it is cheaper and easier for anyone to use these technologies to implement an idea with little training. This helps to bring creativity back to the process by eliminating some of the more complex steps, he points out.

“Developers like to automate routine tasks, so most are already automated,” he says. “Developers would rather spend their time on creative activities.” This means the risk to their roles from automation is “limited”, he adds.

Geoff Smith, managing director for Europe at Experis, argues that creative and soft skills in tech people – the types of skills employers are looking for – will prevent tech roles from ever being fully automated.

“Gone are the days when individuals would hire developers who just sat in the corner and coded away,” he says. “What employers are looking for now is developers – people who can actually develop a system, implement an application, bring it to life in a business concept. You can’t do that if you don’t have the creativity and the business skills to bring it alive on the screen.

“They want the tech skills, but if they can’t get the tech skills, then what they want to try and hire is the confidence and learnability – someone who has the raw materials to learn something quickly.”  

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Experts believe that creativity in roles will be important to avoid job automation, both inside and outside the tech industry, so it is important to teach children about creative thought, as well as to create an environment in which children understand that their future careers will require continuous learning.

Some companies area already trying to address this. To promote creativity in the classroom, FormativeAssess is implementing artificial intelligence that uses machine learning to question students about projects and stimulate independent creative thought without teachers having to interfere.

Extending this into the workplace, Twilio requires all its new starters to use its platform to develop an application that meets some real-world need, encouraging them to combine creativity and tech.  

A focus on a range of skills, both technical and soft, is what will be required of the tech workforce in the future – and companies should work alongside schools and universities to communicate these needs.

Being too specialised or technically focused could be a handicap in the future, says Smith, who advises: “Be flexible and teach the need to learn continuously. If you learn something in a very deep way, if you’re a specialist in a niche field, who is to say that someone won’t create an algorithm to replace that?”

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