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Interview: Equality starts with education, says Salesforce.org exec

Everyone needs access to education to create a level playing field for entering the technology industry, but the curriculum needs to change, says Salesforce’s Charlotte Finn

A curriculum change is needed to equip children with the skills they need to survive and work in the 21st century, says Charlotte Finn, vice-president of programmes for Salesforce.org in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (Emea).

According to Finn, the world is undergoing a “fourth industrial revolution”, with technology developing rapidly and playing a large part in society, but the current education system is putting people at risk of not gaining the skills they need to cope with the impact of tech on future job markets.

“We have to have a curriculum change,” says Finn. “The curriculum we operate at the moment is deeply rooted in the last century, and so we have young people who are not being developed and are not developing the skills they need to operate in the 21st century.

“That leads to a whole society or a whole group of individuals that are at risk of being left behind.”

In 2014, the UK government rolled out a computing curriculum requiring children aged between five and 16 to learn skills such as coding and computational thinking.

This was an attempt to prepare the next generation for careers in tech, as well as fill tech skills gaps, but many argue that the new curriculum puts too much emphasis on coding, and that young people are still leaving education without the skills to fill tech roles.

But the problem is that by the time any changes are suggested and implemented to keep pace with the tech world, the landscape will have shifted again, says Finn.

“You get to the point that you have a conversation about the curriculum, but by the time everybody has talked about the curriculum, it’s actually already moved,” she says. “One of the things we are seeing is that the private sector is actually driving some of that education and some of that skills change more quickly than the educational organisations, out of necessity.”

Risks of being left behind

Finn suggests that to help supplement the curriculum, there should be an additional focus on educating children and their parents about what a technology career entails, the opportunities that exist in the industry, and the “risks of being left behind”.

“Unless we start communicating that message, both inside and outside of schools, then how are people really going to know?” she says.

Research has shown that only 9% of parents would encourage their children to be tech entrepreneurs, and some teachers have admitted they need more help to encourage children into science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) careers because they cannot teach these subject areas with the breadth that is required for such jobs.

There are also many misconceptions and stereotypes about tech careers. When most people consider a career in technology, they think “I have to go and be a coder” because they are not aware of what other roles exist. Finn points out that this is also true of other careers, such as medicine.

“You’ve got parents bringing children up into the ages when they’re thinking about opportunities, careers, universities, but those parents are not of the same technology generation as their young children, so they’re not talking about it because they don’t necessarily know that they need to,” she says.  

Preventing the digital divide  

As well as encouraging more young people into technology careers, the tech industry, the UK government and the education system hope to increase young people’s digital skills and reduce the number of people in the UK without basic digital skills – known as the digital divide.

There is currently a skills divide in the UK, with millions of people who do not have digital skills and 5.8 million who have not used the internet at all – which is estimated to be costing the economy £63bn a year.

Finn points out that whenever there is a global tech shift, threats as well as opportunities can be created as “digital refugees” without access to tech or tech skills will be leaving education without the skills to find or apply for jobs.

These could be people from underprivileged backgrounds, refugees or those with disabilities who have found it hard to access technology and digital skills.

It has been widely suggested that increasing the diversity in an organisation can make that organisation more profitable because diversity in a team breeds variety of thought and increases innovation, better reflecting the marketplace that an organisation serves.

Read more about digital skills

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Finn says Salesforce.org has built relationships with organisations to help create programmes to educate young people, including those in minority groups, to help level the playing field and give them career opportunities. This will, in turn, increase diversity in organisations by ensuring there are young people with the appropriate skills to fill roles and offer creative thought processes that might otherwise have never have been tapped into.

She stresses the importance of reaching these young people before they generate their own unconscious biases that make them think they cannot achieve a career in tech.

“We need to be highlighting that every young person has the opportunity for an apprenticeship, not just a specific group,” says Finn. “We want to get to young people through some of the programmes that we work with and enable them to know they can absolutely do these things. Equality starts with education.”

Education equals equality

Finn describes coding as an “equaliser” and that providing everyone with an appropriate education can help to level the playing field that the tech industry will need in the future. 

“We have come such a long way in such a short amount of time,” she says. “By the time my son is my age, it’s just going to be a completely different world. It’s the young people who are going to do it and that’s why we’ve got to get them ready with the skills. Otherwise we are not going to get to achieve what we need to be doing.

“We are starting to understand that we cannot change if we don’t have education. The only way we can get true equality is by enabling every single person in the world to have an education.”

As well as creating several regional user groups to support women in tech, Salesforce audited its employees’ pay to assess whether there were gender wage gaps, as well as race and ethnicity wage gaps. When it found that there were, it adjusted salaries accordingly to close the gaps.

There have been calls for organisations to focus on increasing workforce diversity in the tech industry, not just on attracting and retaining more women.

Improving performance

Finn hopes some of these initiatives can be replicated to help other minority groups join the organisation, ultimately improving performance and innovation.

“We have had such incredible learning from what we’ve been doing with women in technology, and if we can apply some of those learnings in other areas of diversity, then I believe that’s when we truly get the most incredible workforce,” she says.

“I believe every person contributes something different – whether you’re female, male, LGBT, visually impaired, hearing impaired, unless we get true diversity, unless we get true equality, we’re never going to get to the point where we can do the most amazing innovation and the most amazing advancements because we’ll be missing somebody’s thought.”

A lack of digital skills is hindering transformation in organisations, but there are many reasons why people may miss out on acquiring these skills, such as disability, homelessness, or lack of internet connection – but with access to education, these people could achieve and make a difference to society and the techn industry, says Finn.

Collaboration between the government, the education system and the techn industry is needed to create a curriculum that will cater to the future of work, and to develop programmes that will help people of every ability and background to learn and have some kind of career progression.

“If we don’t do that, then we’re going to miss that spark – and that one thing that could change everything,” says Finn. .............................................................................................................................................

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