The digital skills gap – what can be done?

Despite a booming digital economy, the UK is developing an alarming skills’ shortage in this sector. EdExec caught up with Natalie Gross, co-president of the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA), about why the lack of government funding for digital resources in schools is such a concern, and what options are available to them to ensure students aren’t excluded from the digital age

The digital industry is one of the fastest growth industries in the global economy; it’s where today’s students are most likely to find their future careers. There is a great imbalance between supply and demand of skills and talent, however, with the full range of skills, from programming to data science, to visual design and many more, being underdeveloped.

“The trajectory for growth in the digital economy is exponential as a new wave of technological advancement moves into the mainstream of all aspects of our lives over the next 10 years,” says Natalie. “Students equipping themselves to enjoy a career in digital will benefit from building a career that is high earning and life-enriching as they take their place in shaping the future of business and society.”

Natalie argues that exposure to the digital industry is one of the key ways schools can prepare students – and the earlier the better. “We need schools to reveal to children to the wonders of digital, to inspire them and, crucially, help them to understand the full range of skills our industry needs. We are still in a situation where a lack of awareness means students are not considering a career in the digital industry from very early in their academic journey.”

So, how can we raise students’ awareness?

Local communities
Despite the backdrop of a lack of resources, Natalie is sure that differences can be made on the ground by utilising what’s out there.

“Partnerships are becoming more critical; there is a lot of investment, and people, in local communities that want to engage with schools and the education system to get children into programmes, or after school activities, which will help,” she says.

“At BIMA we run ‘Digital Day’ annually, where we work with children in schools across the UK to educate them about the digital industry; we run interactive exercises where students are generating ideas for digital products and services.

“We are keen to move this from a once-a year-activity to a programme that runs throughout the year, and schools can do a lot to facilitate this sort of thinking. Sadly, much of this effort will be outside the core curriculum and, therefore, also outside of the day-to-day classroom. The creation of, for example, a digital skills club that is interactive, and exposes students to the breadth of the digital industry through exercises, classes and case studies, might be a way forward. We just need to think differently to unlock potential.”

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Staff training
Teacher awareness can be a barrier to students being exposed to the digital industry. Natalie wants to see staff exposed to the same programmes and initiatives that students are given.

“eLearning and webinars could provide solutions at scale,” she says. “I also think digital industry awareness days – compulsory training by LEAs – should be considered. We have to move the system forward for staff and students and remove the notion that integrating these skills into our system and, therefore, economy is optional. It’s not.”

SBMs hold the key
Natalie believes the community of SBMs, and their willingness to collaborate and share knowledge, is essential in helping to build schools’ ability to prepare students for the digital age.

“Working within the local community, SBMs can tap in to many initiatives. Often, finding them is a challenge so, if a SBM can become that ‘fountain of knowledge’ and a ‘deal maker’ within their networks, that would be very valuable for schools,” she explains.

“It’s important to understand that there are a lot of people out there who have either funding or a sense of civic duty to help; SBMs, as custodians of those relationships, are immensely valuable. Of course, pooling resources is another great way to maximise funds, and to also generate a collective spirit.”

Potential inspiration
There are already examples of resource-sharing and community-run schemes out there which provide a model for what could be achieved at school level. Natalie offers fab labs – the international maker hub started at MIT – as an example of what can be achieved.

“I wonder if schools can look to adopt similar concepts,” she says. “Within the digital industry we are seeing a greater merging of the physical and digital worlds. This is truly bringing together craft, design and technology. Schools tend to have facilities for design and technology that are ideal for multi-functional fab labs. What the fab labs have taught us is that people are inspired to work in multi-functional ways, to play and experiment, and that this behaviour is addictive.

“If we could inject this into students at a young age, the potential impact would be very powerful. Fab labs do need a mixture of equipment but perhaps, with pooled resources, something like a fab lab could become a beacon and a catalyst for change.”

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