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STEMing the Skills Gap?

Modular Law's Rachael has been reflecting on some topical Christmas viewing as she eases back into work for 2020…

Throughout 2019 I attended various events for the tech sector ran by some of our region’s excellent networking groups such as Dynamo and Digital Union. What struck me most is that the topic everyone put at the top of the agenda was the skills gap in the tech and digital world which inevitably leads to recruitment problems, not just within the North East region but across the UK as a whole.

As a mother to a five year old daughter I was particularly interested in what Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE spoke about during her keynote speech at Dynamo’s annual conference in 2019. Dr Imafidon spoke so eloquently and passionately about the need to ensure equal gender representation in the tech and digital industry; an issue which starts with ensuring that both girls and boys are exposed to STEM subjects in equal measure at an early age and are inspired to see what a passion for maths or science could lead to in the future.

With this in mind, I watched the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures on BBC4 this year with great interest. Across three episodes, Dr Hannah Fry spoke to an audience of young people in an engaging and entertaining way about the very real impact that maths has on our everyday lives. I can’t in any way do the lectures justice by writing about them (you can instead catch them on iPlayer), but what I found very engaging was the presence of guests working in varied STEM related careers including:

  • a coder who creates large scale interactive laser light installations to rival any firework display going;
  • a CGI specialist creating SFX for Hollywood blockbusters;
  • a computer scientist demonstrating machine learning algorithms;
  • a website designer explaining cookies and how we all leave a digital footprint wherever we go; and
  • an expert in facial recognition talking about security applications for the technology as well as the pitfalls when considering deepfakes and the rise of fake news.

Dr Fry and her guests did an excellent job of bringing the subject matter to life. The lectures demonstrated the ways in which children who are engaged in and given access to STEM subjects in a lively and real-life way can start to envision a life outside of education where they can use their skills in the real world.

It got me thinking about what more we, as professionals, can do to encourage children into tech and digital careers. The future of work is changing and I’m sure the options a careers advisor would have spoken with me about 20-odd years ago would look very different now (and hopefully far less gender driven but that is a rant for another day!). I want to be able to provide my daughter with information and access to all sorts of options and I think this starts with what she sees as ‘normal’ – as much as I hate using that word. If children are to believe it is normal for them to dream of a career as an animator for Disney or as a software engineer creating the latest online games, they then need to be supported by clued-up educators and professionals from industry who can help them achieve those goals by providing access to the right subjects at school and relevant, engaging work experience.  The IET is already making great progress in this area.

Obviously the skills gap is far more complex than this short post allows me to delve into (particularly when we add the gender angle into it) and whilst it is really encouraging to see so many great STEM based television programmes aimed at kids, this doesn’t solve the immediate skills gap problem. What more can be done to encourage career changers or graduates into roles in the tech and digital sector? My experience of this sector has highlighted how varied, interesting and dynamic a career in it can be. Various initiatives exist to encourage career changers, particularly women, into tech careers (for more on this see Dr Sue Black OBE’s excellent DuWiT programme at Durham University and the Tech Mums initiative as well as the various resources on the STEM Graduates website) but there remains a problem that needs to be solved.

Whilst I don’t have the answers, I know that the solution to the skills gap must come from industry as well as encouraging children to consider a far wider range of careers options than we have in the past.

I’d love to know your thoughts!  What could you do to open up the world of tech to a 5, 10, or 13 year old and gently nudge them towards a digital future?

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