The wrong skills: Why are computing students unemployed?

Students are finally taking an interest in computing careers – so why are so many unemployed?

The number of students studying computer science at GCSE increased fourfold this year, and more students have been sitting A-level computing exams in 2014 - so why are young people failing to enter the IT sector?

Figures released by the Joint Council for Qualifications show that 16,773 students sat the computer science GCSE exam in 2014, compared with 4,253 in 2013, and the number of A-level computing students increased from 3,758 in 2013 to 4,171 this year.

This is clearly a step in the right direction, but what does it mean for computing students when they actually reach the job market? Will these new students, finally interested in an IT career, actually find one and will they leave formal education with the right skills to enter the IT workforce?

A report from TheCompleteUniversityGuide revealed that students graduating from computer science university degrees have a 46% chance of failing to find a suitable job.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) report Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Institutions 2012/13 focused on "What 2012/13 graduates did next" and found that 13% of students who graduated with a first-class degree in computer science were unemployed.

Also, computer science accounted for the highest number of unemployed students taking science-based degrees, followed by engineering and technology (8.7%).

Seeking out the right training

According to QA Apprenticeships, there has been a 108% increase in demand for IT apprenticeships from school leavers who are seeking an alternative route into the tech sector.  

The training provider also reports a 40% rise in the number of employees wanting IT apprentices, as both employers and students seek alternatives to university that might stand them in better stead for a career in IT.

Stuart Greenslade, EU networking sales director at Avaya, says he took a convoluted route into technology. “I came into networking via an electronics engineering route – networking was just one module on my course,” he says.

“Seek the right training, because a lot depends on what you want to do, whether it’s engineering, design or sales. But the thing you start off doing you don’t have to do for the rest of your life.

“There is a lot more competence in terms of technology today. A lot of young people are probably more competent than they know.”

Ian Foddering, CTO and technical director at Cisco UK&I, says: “First and foremost, I would genuinely encourage young people to look at taking Cisco certifications. It is recognised that although they are specific to Cisco, they represent a very good industry standard, so whether your career takes you to Cisco or a partner, or even a competitor, it’s a solid baseline.

“Historically, we had a graduate training programme – people went through university and got a degree then applied to our programme. But we recognised that skillsets exist in many different places – some people are put off going to university, but they are still very talented individuals. Three years ago, we started an apprenticeship programme to look at bringing people who had completed their A-levels into the business.”

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It’s not just about formal qualifications

Andy Cross, vice-president organisation development at Colt Technology Services, says: “As a sector, we should do more to encourage young people to focus on developing their potential alongside more formal qualifications.

“Employers will be looking for evidence on CVs that show young people are creative, tenacious and agile; a leader or a team player. Opportunities to gain these skills and attributes are often not found in the classroom – they come from what young people choose to get involved in outside of a formal learning environment. Unfortunately, time spent on computer games and social media doesn’t naturally translate into these valuable traits.”

Cross says technology companies need people who can connect with customers and their needs, think differently, design simplicity into products and services, and continually look to improve. “All of these are more about who that person is rather than the qualification they have,” he says. “The best companies look beyond the academic to find the most talented people – the best thinkers, the best attitude, and the most potential to learn quickly.

“They hire potential, then provide training for the more technical aspects. By attracting the best young people into its business, an organisation can create a genuine competitive advantage.”

Alastair Paterson, CEO at startup Digital Shadows, says many employers will consider applicants with A-levels only if they can demonstrate a positive attitude to learn, drive and enthusiasm. “If you’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and drive, perfect A-levels don’t have to be an impediment, certainly for working in startups,” he says.

“We recently put out an advert for a marketing intern and had a response from someone who had taken the time to format their CV in our company colours and graphics and had produced a high-quality, customised marketing plan for Digital Shadows. That’s earned them an interview despite imperfect qualifications.”

Gain experience in a startup or start your own

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates, says: “Get experience in a technology startup – doing so would be one of the most productive uses of your gap year, for example. The education system does not equip young people with the digital or business skills that tech companies so desperately need. There is no better way to learn than working in the fast–paced environment of a lean startup.

The beauty of today’s digital economy is that the most successful companies can be created by anyone. Creating your own business is no small feat, but if you are successful, the rewards are there to be reaped. After all, innovation is a meritocratic process.”

And there is always the option of starting your own business. Tech City UK CMO Katy Turner says: “The UK’s digital economy is generating jobs at a faster rate than any other sector. In particular, the booming tech startup scene offers lots of opportunities for ambitious individuals and has already generated many successful young entrepreneurs. 

“Founders of tech businesses can short-circuit traditional higher education and are often building their own businesses without formal qualifications. Building a product, service or blog can also provide invaluable experience, which will benefit the individual whether they go on to run their own company or become employed.

“With a maturing startup ecosystem and an increasing number of accelerators, incubators and support schemes, young people thinking about setting up their own business can get access to a range of experience, advice and support. 

“At Tech City UK, we work closely with entrepreneurs and the startup community to ensure that young people have access to the right information, skills and networks to develop their business ideas, regardless of their previous experience or background.”

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