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IT companies need technical workers with soft skills

IT firms are in need of candidates with interpersonal skills, as well as specific technical focuses

IT firms are in need of skilled candidates who also have soft interpersonal skills needed to perform roles.

At a debate discussing the potential launch of a computing focused University Technical College (UTC) in Hillingdon, representatives from firms including Apple, Microsoft and Fujitsu stated that young people with skills such as basic digital literacy, time management and teamwork were just as important as individuals with specific industry skills.

Firms also wanted people with technical skills, with cyber security being a particular area of interest for the firms.

UTCs address skills gap

Soft skills are an issue to us – the ability to be a self-starter, to self-direct,” said Tracy Rawling, head of CSR at Kyocera.

“Children who come through an education system when all they’re used to doing is what they’re told is of very little use to an employer.”

Kenneth Baker of Dorking, a former member of Parliament, set out to tackle skills gaps with the launch of UTCs seven years ago. UTCs were originally meant to solve the lack of technical skills throughout industry, which Baker stated was “one of the biggest problems in the country”.

“We decided the one thing missing from the education system were good technical skills,” said Baker. “The problem is simply this – skilled trades vacancies are the hardest jobs to fill globally.”

By 2020, 756,000 digital jobs will need to be filled across Europe.

But Baker stated the skills gap will not be filled in time without encouraging more people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects. He said this shift in industry specialisms will be harder to address than workforce shifts created by previous changes, such as the industrial revolution.

“I do believe we’re on the edge of another huge industrial revolution,” said Baker.

“The capacity of this generation and of this revolution is going to destroy more jobs than it will create. We have people without jobs and jobs without people.”

Industry must collaborate with teachers

It was widely agreed throughout the debate that the industry needs to collaborate with educational providers to decide what skills young people need going into a tech workplace – something UTCs attempt to address.

University and industry sponsors of the colleges set the curriculum for the colleges, which are aimed at pupils between the ages of 14 and 18, as well as provide case studies, mentorship and real-world projects for the students to work on so they learn specific skills.

Rather than being asked for money, industry partners are asked to dedicate time to the college in a commitment to help the students begin working life.

“Employers are asked to do much more, this is not just work experience. The employers decide the nature of the curriculum for the UTC,” said Baker.

Project-based working, job-like hours and workplace dress also help students to become work-ready and develop the soft skills industry firms are asking for.

“Because they’re working on projects, they’re used to working in teams,” said Baker. “Another advantage is that students get used to problem solving because they work on projects.”

The changing face of the workforce

There was also an emphasis on diversity of teams and the potential for UTCs helping to nurture talent in minority groups.

“We work with a number of UTCs and – for us – it is about future talent,” said Ash Merchant, head of business development for education at Fujitsu.

“There’s a big focus from our side about gender diversity and how we can overcome some of the serotyping.”

UTCs are non-selective, which often gives students who do not thrive in a traditional school environment the opportunity to gain technical qualifications and workplace skills.

“The opportunity for children with autism and those with special education needs and challenges – the fact that it’s not selective is a big draw,” said Merchant.

Cisco also stated that they work with UTC Reading. The firm said that, as a result of interacting with different people through project-based group work, the girls became interested in technical subjects as it breaks the stereotype that IT work is done alone.

Paul Jones, head of academies, federations and trusts at Cisco, said that the IT industry and schools should be “making sure that ICT has a better brand with girls in school”.

“Academic study can be a little bit lonely sometimes, a little bit self-focused,” said Jones. “A lot of the pupils [in Reading UTC] are now able to work with a lot of people they wouldn’t normally engage with.”

Educators need support to teach technology

When the computing curriculum was introduced in September 2014, its aim was to ensure children left school with an understanding of digital skills by making it mandatory to teach computing to children between the ages of five and 16.

But teachers were not prepared for the shift, and many received no training on how to deliver the curriculum.

Lara Havrod, UK educational business development manager from Apple, claimed that teachers should not only be supported in delivering the curriculum, but also in developing their own career.  

“Apple’s focus – from an educational point of view – is to provide support to all the teachers,” she said.

Teachers should be given the means for professional development so that, as technology advances, they have the support needed to teach children how to use it properly.

Havrod also highlighted the need for an “investigative and explorative” approach to technology, which allows children to use it creatively.  

Andrew Ward, director of corporate relations at Brunel University, stated the “fastest growing sector is the creative industries” and that children should not have to seek “permission to be creative”.

Changing minds about qualifications

However, children will often need support from elsewhere when choosing their future careers. A recent research from O2 recently found that more than 70% would be open to hearing from industry experts about what IT jobs involve.

Madeleine Field, people development manager for FDM, said “companies have got to change their view” on what qualifications are needed to join a firm to ensure they get the right skills in the future.

“If we’re going to have people in a digital world, they’re going to have to be in charge of their own careers,” said Field.

“You need people with ambition, and you need people with energy and who want to make a difference.”

Elliot Berg, deputy head of networks at AVCO Systems, said part of the problem is that students at schools are given “outdated” material, and “no practical application” makes it “difficult to motivate them” into a technology career.

“Practical skills-based training has much more of an attraction to a young person because you can see the direct benefit you get from the learning.”

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