Supply and demand: IT skills in Britain’s youth

Big data is proving to be big news right now. According to the Tech Partnership’s recent survey with SAS, some 90 per cent of companies think they could achieve business benefits by strengthening their big data capabilities. But at the same time, employers are facing critical skills shortages that put at risk the UK’s leadership in cutting-edge technologies, including big data.

The buck must stop here. Industry, education and government have a joint responsibility to ensure the UK has a workforce equipped for the future. And that task starts at school, in primary and secondary classrooms across the nation.

We are failing our young people if we don’t make them aware of growth sectors and skills that will be the lynchpin of job creation in the future.  It’s a fact that digital skills underpin every sector in the economy. Specifically, data awareness and analysis skills are increasing in demand and as such it’s vital that young people are introduced to these concepts from school age.

At the moment, we have a shocking situation where IT GCSEs make up only 1.5 per cent of all GCSEs taken and the number of A-level students taking computing has decreased by 50 per cent over the last decade. We need to reverse this trend urgently with an inspiring curriculum that is relevant to the real world, and that includes content on big data and other priority technologies, such as cyber security and the internet of things.

And big data skills shouldn’t be siphoned off merely to IT classrooms. Maths, statistics, science, social science, business and even the humanities are just some of the school subjects that could cover data analysis concepts and the power of data in our technologically driven world.

In fact, a well-rounded, holistic approach to learning big data skills is vital, because pure technical ability is of limited use unless combined with “soft skills”, such as the ability to contextualise and solve problems, to identify anomalies, and to clearly communicate issues and solutions. These are the very skills that businesses are crying out for across all sectors, not just technology.

We know that data analysts and scientists are going to be in great demand in the future, and these roles require skills in extracting, organising and classifying data, and in using business knowledge and analytical skills to mine value from data. The building blocks of these skills can, and should, be taught at school.

Employers are already taking steps to help with this. For instance, the Tech Partnership and SAS are producing a topical learning resource for secondary school students that will use data mining techniques. Students will create a predictive model to analyse the historic Titanic passenger list to determine whether two young people who “missed the boat” would have survived.

The building blocks of these skills can, and should, be taught at school

Resources like this are vital to introduce young people to big data concepts and to show them how they can be employed in real life, in both unexpected and meaningful ways. This is important if we are to challenge the common misconception that tech skills are geeky, irrelevant and dull.

At university level, the Tech Partnership would like to see big data included in the curriculums of all computing and IT-related degrees. However, employer involvement is essential if we are to make sure that big data studies are contextualised with real-life business situations. It is the mix of technical skills, business acumen and soft skills that will help students to be work-ready when they graduate.

Employability rates for computer science degree courses have been too low for too long. Now is the time for academics and employers to collaborate on programmes that equip young people with the skills and experience to add value as soon as they graduate. The employer-backed IT Management for Business degree, which is offered at 19 universities around the UK, is one successful model that could be followed.

It is only by educators and employers working together that we can ensure young people can embrace the opportunities opened up by big data, to prevent a generation being left behind.