Scotland Needs to Collaborate to Fix the Digital Skills Gap

The digital skills gap is well documented, but whilst a range of initiatives have been put in place to help address the issue, the problem shows no signs of abating.

Some stakeholders have called for more to be done to join-up activities and align efforts behind a collaborative response. Speaking to DIGIT, Jamie Duncan, Head of Employer Engagement for ScotlandIS’ e-Placement programme said:

“We’ve got lots of different organisations running lots of different initiatives – I think more could be done to pool these resources and work together to achieve our common goal – not just at a Scottish or UK level, but a global level.”

Duncan is positive about many of the programmes that are underway but is clear that it is not enough to meet the needs of our “booming” tech industry:
“There’s simply not enough people with the right skills to fill these roles. We need to attract more people into STEM subjects in order to meet this demand, and ensure that they’re work-ready once they graduate.”

This ability to align educational output with industry requirement is key from an economic standpoint, but this requires adequate numbers of school leavers and graduates with the right skillset.
This is one of the areas where Duncan would encourage greater collaboration: “I think the universities, colleges and schools have an opportunity to work more closely to ensure that our young students are making the right career choices.”

In this regard, Duncan feels that there needs to be more emphasis on promoting the wealth of career opportunities which STEM subjects can open up, with clear advocacy for specific courses and skills which will pave the pathway to reach in-demand occupations.

The timing of these promotional efforts is critical; Duncan believes we need to reach young people before they make their subject selection at school. For this reason the e-Placement team attends school fairs and works with Skills Development Scotland to drive interest and excitement in careers in Digital and IT.

The ScotlandIS team are currently working with the Energy Skills Partnership on their Big Bang Fair which will take place in June. Duncan said “this fair will bring STEM subjects to life with engaging interactive activities related to current jobs and provide practical careers information, giving young people the opportunity to find out more about the broad spectrum of STEM related careers available today.”

This direct link to careers is continued through to higher education when students are ready for work placements. This is where collaboration must also extend to industry, with academic education reinforced by practical application and industry engagement. This element is core to the e-Placement Scotland project that Duncan works on, which matches students with high-quality paid work placements in an appropriate technical field.

Here the students are able to utilise their skills in a real world industry environment, they are also enabled to establish the business connections which can lead to permanent employment. The figures underline the success of the placements, with around 50% of students returning to the employer for a position once they graduate.

To date, the organisation has created over 1,600 placements across software development, data science, digital marketing and a multitude of other roles.

The impact of the e-Placement scheme is clear and serves a good example of positive efforts to address the skills gap, but there is no doubting that the challenge is so wide that more needs to be done.

According to the Scottish Government, up to 27,000 new work placements are planned for this year, an announcement that paralleled the launch of Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2017 earlier in March.

But these targets were not focussed on Digital and IT specifically, and given the economic importance of the sector more needs to be done to prioritise resources directly.
Duncan said: “I can already see that there’s so much being done to help Scotland’s digital sector grow, but of course there’s always more that can be done.”

“We’re already working with Highlands and Island Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland, Digital Extra, CodeClan, The Data Lab, The Energy Skills Partnership and many more organisations to help drive more people into technology careers and grow Scotland’s digital sector.”

More of this collaboration is crucial; we need to align our efforts to scale the projects and increase the impact if we are to redress the skills gap in Scotland.

Everyone needs to get involved: employers could help by engaging with skills programmes and working with schools, universities and colleges. While the education system needs to increase the provision of teachers in STEM subjects, and ensure that the curriculum is as engaging and industry-relevant as possible.

In February, IT entrepreneur, Ian Ritchie wrote a very telling article which argued that not enough priority was being given to computing science in schools. He highlighted that the IT skills gap was being exacerbated by the worrying slide in the number of computing teachers in Scotland, which fell by fourteen percent from 2007-2014.

This failure to prioritise computing at secondary level then leads to low numbers of students taking associated courses at university. Collectively, only 3000 students graduate from computing courses a year, which is nowhere near enough to meet the extra 11,000 positions needed in IT & Digital every year.

These systemic weaknesses need to be overcome if we are going to close the skills gap and this cannot happen without greater collaboration and alignment. Scotland’s digital sectors are among the most fertile ground for young people, but we need to engage our students and equip them to enter the field and thrive.

Technology is increasingly central to both industry and society, and this trend is only set to continue. If we do not skill Scotland’s workforce in accordance with this transition then both industry and society will suffer.



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