Businesses and education providers must work together to bridge the digital skills gap

Jason Hill talks IT skills training, and how technology companies can encourage tomorrow’s digital entrepreneurs

There is a dearth of skills in almost every niche of the technology market. In fact, one in six UK workers possess low or no digital skills according to research from Salesforce and IDC. The challenge is twofold: how do you provide digital skills training, and how do you get young people interested in working in tech in the first place?

Whatever the route, it’s clear that more needs to be done to attract talent towards a career in tech. The Learning & Work Institute’s research into the state of the UK’s tech future highlights the deeper-rooted challenges within the education system, reporting that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015.

This isn’t something parents or schools can do on their own. Government has a role to play by adding technology skills to the curriculum and providing financial incentives to schools and companies who prioritise bridging the skills gap. Likewise, companies must also invest in programmes that will get children to think about technology skills as a desirable career option.  Here are a few of the ways technology companies can help to bridge the gap:

Promote coding initiatives that gamify the world of work 

Initiatives like creative challenges for students is certainly one way to do this. The Reply Code for Kids initiative, for example, is an international service for European companies and schools, which aims to empower the next generation of innovators through fostering children’s natural curiosity.

For 16+ students, there is the Reply Code Challenge, which promotes a culture of coding and stimulates digital innovation in the fields of creativity, cybersecurity and finance, and is held with businesses including EasyJet, Mondelez, Miele and Sky. These challenges show how learning can happen at the intersection of enterprise and education, and it is essential that these initiatives get people ready for the world of work.

Partner with Universities to identify talent and create a clear career path

Companies should also seek to form partnerships with schools to incorporate practical experience into the learning process. Many tech skills cannot be absorbed purely through theory but require a tacit approach where students can gain valuable hands-on experience to employ their skills and acquire a greater understanding of their application.

Our master’s degree on AI and cloud in partnership with Politecnico is an example of this intersection between education and business. As well as training the tech pioneers of tomorrow, the masters programme has provided a pipeline of talent into the business. There are a total of 40 students currently on the second edition of the programme. All the students from the first cohort of the programme are now working at Reply.

It’s not just hard IT skills

Many of the graduate and apprentice candidates we have seen in the past six months have not had the opportunity to undertake an industrial placement and, in some cases, are lacking soft skills and the sensibility of the workplace.

To address this, we have changed our approach to mentorship and are enrolling both new graduates and apprentices onto specially designed soft skills programmes. What we are seeing during the interview process for new graduates and apprentices is a willingness to complete online courses from platforms such as Coursera and LinkedIn; there is a real desire to standout, and put in the extra effort to do so.

The appetite is there, but we need to help these young people reach their potential. In 2021, alongside the graduate intake, we also launched our Technical Apprentice Programme which aims to offer a degree apprenticeship to those leaving schools and colleges with A-Levels. The apprentice positions are salaried and have the course fees for the Digital & Technical Solutions BSc paid by Reply.

Identify new talent and give them a leg up

We’ve also recently partnered with a hyperscaler and a charity to attract those from disadvantaged backgrounds into the technology sector by offering a 16-week bootcamp before enrolment on the Reply UK Technical Apprentice Programme.

There are countless examples of how organisations and businesses are working together to tackle the digital skills gap. The Institute of Coding (IoC) is a collaborative national consortium of industry, educators, and outreach providers that are working together to respond to the UK’s digital skills gap through the delivery of employer-led digital skills education. Through this collaborative approach, IoC partners have created more than 150 new courses that have engaged 900,000 diverse learners to date.

As part of the UK government’s lifetime skills guarantee and plan for jobs, IoC partners are providing 26 skills bootcamps throughout the country. Topics will include core digital skills, data science, software development, AI, cybersecurity, and more.

It’s amazing to see this kind of commitment from such a consortium of partners. The concerted effort to share ideas is vital if we are to bridge the digital skills gap and create a workforce equipped for the rapid pace of digital transformation we are seeing across industries and society. Companies must lean in as much as they can to tackle this challenge together and create a culture of technology skills aspirations.

The future is digital. We must embrace it together.


You might also like: Minding the digital skills gap – how free online courses can help educators gain ground

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