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The answer to the UK’s looming digital skills crisis might be more obvious than you think

Education

The answer to the UK’s looming digital skills crisis might be more obvious than you think

For every looming economic crisis, there’s a reinvention, and these days it’s always the same one.  Each time fiscal armageddon looms there’s a minister suggesting that the economy will simply restructure itself (somehow), and these days the answer is always (always) that the tech economy will set the country afloat again. That the UK will be a tech-hub driving the globe’s innovation.

But that reflotation may well be heading for an iceberg. A set of problems both self-inflicted and structural.

Coadec, the self-styled ‘policy voice’ of the UK’s start-ups is warning this week, convincingly, it has to be said, that there is a ‘triple whammy’ ahead, creating a huge skills crisis in the UK’s tech industry, which will mean 2.8 million unfilled vacancies for digitally skilled workers, over a quarter of them software developers.

  • A critical fall-off in the STEM skills of the population, due to lack of funding (the structural)
  • Visa restrictions, which will emerge from the withdrawal from the Single Market, meaning fewer skilled specialists from overseas.
  • Those same overseas specialists affected by the uncertainty of Brexit and liable to move to tech-literate countries which feel more stable.

Coadec is assuming the latter two issues (the self-inflicted) are too big for it to take or (or, at least, need to be left to Mr Blair), and the issue of STEM education is largely one of funding. So good luck with that.

So what next? Well, the chances are that at least part of the answer could be sitting right by you. They’re called ‘women’. You may have heard of them. And it’s time they were a much bigger part of the UK’s tech sector.

As it stands, 4% of gaming programmers are women. As are seven of the of the world’s top 100 tech billionaires. In 2015, women held 57% of all professional occupations, but only 25% of all computing occupations. The only place where women get involved in coding on anything like an equitable basis is in teaching it.

The culture remains one of ‘coding is for boys’, and ‘too difficult’ – and that’s a problem. It means the existing tools for coding education are actually putting most girls off wanting to learn more about coding and creating on the web. Instead, we want to build tools to give girls both the skills and the confidence to code.

There’s plenty of places they can learn coding (really, plenty) and plenty of ways they can be empowered to do so. But so many of them start after to most formative years, at primary level. And while that might address the immediate post-Brexit skills issues, it won’t do so quickly, nor will it do anything for the long term.

Tool like the coding game Erase All Kittens can be especially useful – aimed at girls, aged 8+ and teaching HTML, CSS and Javascript – the real languages of technology, it already has 50,000 players across the world, effectively pre-launch, 47% of them girls (it is estimated that less than 20% of girls participate in code education outside of school).

That’s where the difference will come – equality in coding education will, eventually, lead to equality in the gender balance in the tech industry. And it’s no coincidence that there is greater gender equality in the education industry – the role models are there, we just need the tools.

In the meantime, we’re heading for a skills chasm. And there was an answer there all along.

Jimmy Leach is a digital consultant, working with governments, organisations and people. He tweets at @JimmyTLeach

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