Can the government’s Institute of Coding help tackle the UK’s tech skills disconnect?

Many have claimed there is a gap between the tech skills taught by education providers and the skills needed by firms, but can the Institute of Coding help to bridge it?

In January 2018, the UK government announced it would be investing £20m in an Institute of Coding with the aim of tackling the UK’s Digital Skills gap.

Many of the government’s previous initiatives, such as the new computing curriculum, have been tasked with the same goal, but the Brexit vote has made the UK’s need for technology talent even more dire.

What is slightly different about the Institute of Coding is its focus on partnerships, perhaps showing the government has cottoned on to the industry’s claim there is a disconnect between what people are being taught by education providers, and what skills firms actually need.

Bill Mitchell, director of public affairs at the BCS, said: “If you go back in time, since the turn of the millennium, is has been obvious that our education system as a whole doesn’t meet the needs of students, employers or the nation when we are living through the middle of a digital revolution that’s changing pretty much everything that goes on in your life.”

Industry, government, and education collaboration

The Institute of Coding will be made up of 60 businesses, universities and industry experts who will be tasked with developing programmes designed to make graduates more employable, develop specialist skills training and retrain those whose jobs are facing digital transformation.

Mitchell said developing these programmes isn’t just important for developing the skills firms need, but also for making sure that people are prepared for what jobs might require of them in the future.

“The Institute of Coding is a very positive thing that is going to help employers, universities and organisations like BCS actually try and address the underlying problems, to get more relevant education for undergraduates, to help equip them with the type of skills that should last them throughout their careers,” he said.

But though the Institute of Coding will help “oil the wheels” when it comes to developing the skills the UK needs for the future, Mitchell admitted it is “not a full solution”. For example, Mitchell claimed many undergraduates are not “work ready” and many firms require different softer skills that are often not taught at university.

“We’re always nervous about saying people are work ready, you might be fit to be employed but that doesn’t mean from day one an employer can expect you do be of the same level of somebody you’ve employed for the last four or five years,” he said.

It is also difficult to introduce the flexibility needed for future technology advancements into school curriculums, but it is also important to avoid only addressing the higher educational segment of the tech talent pipeline to account for the lack of flexibility earlier on in the education system.

“You simply can’t design a primary school and a secondary school education system that can respond to the latest exciting thing coming through technology – what you can do is equip children with the fundamental understanding of the scientific and engineering principals and concepts in computing,” said Mitchell.

Introducing flexibility into tech education

The government introduced the new computing curriculum in 2014 with the aim of preparing young people for a digital future, but many argue it need to be more flexible as it is difficult to introduce new concepts quickly enough that everyone has a basic understanding of new and developing technologies.

John Domingue, Director of the Knowledge Media Institute at The Open University (OU), one of the Institutes university partners, claimed part of OU’s participation in the Institute of Coding will be to build an accreditation standard which will help to close the gap between education and industry.

To help introduce flexibility to technology education to ensure people are prepared for the future, the Institute of Coding will also develop a “skills observatory” to identify and anticipate future skills gaps.

“The Institute of Coding will embed innovative teaching methods including the use of analytics to understand learners, give automated careers advice and personalise learning; using blockchain based learning records; and the extensive use of Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs), such as those provided by FutureLearn, which is also an Institute of Coding member,” said Domingue.

But these steps are still focused on higher level educational routes as opposed to encouraging and teaching people earlier in the pipeline.

Domingue said there are “explicit” areas of work within the Institute of Coding which aim to “address exactly this issue” through partnering with schools and employers to develop workshops, boot camps, hackathons and other outreach activities to develop a diverse pipeline of talent into the technology industry.

Read more about technology skills

  • Only a small percentage of young people who want to work in technology are women, with 45% of young women claiming they don’t have the skills for tech.
  • Government departments have published their single departmental plans, highlighting the need for innovation, skills and digital – and the requirements of Brexit.

Some organisations outside the Institute of Coding are already trying to develop this early pipeline through working with schools and presenting young people with role models in the technology industry to help them better understand what jobs may be available for them in the future.

One of these organisations is CA Technologies, which runs a Create Tomorrow programme, a corporate social responsibility strategy which aims to make young people more aware of digital jobs.

Sarah Atkinson, vice-president of EMEA communications and head of Create Tomorrow, said: “Initiatives like the Institute of Coding are hugely important in helping to tackle this, and it’s encouraging to see the Government working with industry and academia to achieve a common goal.”

But Atkinson also warned that there needs to be a focus on digital skills other than coding to solve some of the wider issues in the science, technology, engineer and maths (Stem) industry, such as a lack of diversity or a lack of basic digital skills in adults.

She said: “It’s essential to remember that coding is just one part of the picture. Digital Literacy is key for the entire workforce and there are many other routes into Stem jobs. One of the big challenges to overcome is gender stereotyping, which often dissuades girls from pursuing Stem studies and careers at an early age.”

Atkinson emphasised that a focus on reaching younger students as well as those in higher education is to ensure future generations understand what opportunities they have access to in the form of technology careers and how these roles may end up impacting society.

Not just coding

It’s is becoming increasingly important for graduates to have soft skills as well as technical skills as elements such as creativity can mean the difference between success and failure for firms in a digital age.

Julian David, TechUK CEO, said the Institute of Coding should focus on skills that “compliment” the technical higher-level skills, such as communication and management. “This is critical as jobs are evolving and skills needs are changing,” he said.

David also said a focus on diversity in the technology industry is needed to ensure firms recruit people who will contribute towards innovation in the future, a focus which David said should go “hand-in-hand” with what other reforms are being made by the Institute of Coding.

This lack of diversity in the technology industry needs to be addressed by aiming to attract people not only with diverse skill sets but from diverse backgrounds, said Rod Flavell, FDM Group CEO.

“It’s important that courses are developed that deliver what employers need and at the same time are appealing to a wide range of people from all backgrounds, whether that’s school leavers starting out on their careers, returners who have experience to offer, to those looking to start a new career or transition from a different role,” he said.

And how can the Institute of Coding build upon work already being done by firms rather than treading the same ground? Many with existing initiatives are already involved in the Institute of Coding, one example being FDM.

Sharing experience and insight

Flavell said the Institute of Coding will be an “opportunity” for many in the industry to share experience and insight to achieve the Institute of Coding’s aim of developing areas of best practice which all initiatives in the technology industry can follow.

“The Institute of Coding offers a real opportunity to bring together different communities to share insight, expertise and best practice to help address some of the issues that contribute to the UK’s skills gaps,” he said.

The Institute of Coding was announced as part of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, a long-term plan to make Britain “stronger”, so although experts claim it is step in the right direction, it may be some time before we can see if it brings results.

Read more on IT education and training

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