IT jobs: Tackling the looming digital skills gap

The UK's digital skills gap is big, and getting bigger. Time for a new approach.

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According to a report by Tech Nation, over 50 percent of the UK's digital tech businesses say they are facing a shortage of skilled workers.

What can we do about it? A new organisation, the Institute of Coding (IoC), plans to do something about it. ZDNet talked to the director of the Institute, Rachid Hourizi, to see where his organisation plans to begin.

ZDNet: What was the main idea behind the organisation?

Hourizi: There are a number of IT problems in this country but they really all come down to two.

Firstly, we don't train nearly enough people in this country. We don't train enough specialists. We don't put enough of them through higher education. We don't put enough of them through any kind of advanced educational work. Just not enough people.

The second one is, weirdly, that Computer Science graduates suffer the worst rate of unemployment after six months. Which is absolutely astonishing after what I've just said about the numbers?

It's not across the board. There are some universities that do well and some that do less well and the reasons are inevitably complex. But, nonetheless, if you wanted a simple headline about how could we ensure that more people must get digitally ready that would be the big driver.

SEE: Interview tips: How to land your next tech job (free PDF)

From that, there are many things that we are doing, and many things that we could do, but prominent among them is the idea that educators and industry don't talk at scale in a way that they might.

Now, if you were designing a system to solve that problem you would want an ongoing conversation between industries, large and small, and educators, large and small.

The first part of what the Institute is, is the focal point for that conversation. And the other part is that we want to deliver. This is not going to be a talking shop. This is the place where we co-develop education. We will have done well if we educate more people and make sure that they are ready for higher education in this area.

You think the industry's problem is a lack of people?

Yes. And that's why it's important to remember that we were explicitly made the focus of a government strategy and that we were announced by the Prime Minister. This wasn't announced on the back page of a web site!

The interesting sub-story is that every time we contact somebody, every time we do a press announcement, large companies want to talk to us.

Pretty much every day people will say to us: "This is a huge issue, what can we do? How can we contribute and how can we benefit from these new things that are going on?"

You have got all these universities involved and are talking to different industries?

Yes, and we find that there are different issues and different points of view for different industries.

I actually ran a pilot the other week which involved a combination of an academic education institution -- a city university -- and some embedded Microsoft professionals and I think the combination was really interesting.

Is ther any particular reason why that was especially interesting?

I think because it involved the best of both worlds. You've got a solid degree and some professional training and that is a really good combination.

What's your motivation for getting involved in this?

I think that this is one of those really interesting situations where you can see the practical results of what you do. You can say, on the one level you will be helping the national economy and, on another, you'll be giving people careers.

But you must add to that the notion that there are large parts of the population that we don't serve very well. There's a real opportunity to do a good thing that should be done, as well as doing something that should be practical if we can do it.

But if you look at the history there have been so many times when government bodies and others have set out to do something about this issue without much success?

The scale of the problem continues to grow, and the scale of the need does so too. But the point is that it's not a problem it's a need.

And, also, the detail of the need changes often and at a speed that is quite mind-boggling. It's hard, frankly, for universities that are working at the speed that they normally work to keep up with this change. That is at the centre of the problem.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF)

You've got the cloud happening and universities have to cope with that. It's not a universal thing, but some universities do a good job in some areas. But the speed is such that I can say that if we have this conversation tomorrow the target will have changed. But remember, that's not a good thing or a bad thing.

Making sure that people are ready to contribute is a shifting feast these days.

Where does an issue like Brexit come in this?

I think the problem exists regardless of the Brexit outcome. One part gets bigger and one part is not quite so big, but it is still a substantial problem for the country regardless.

It's a big distraction at least?

If we lose access to some of the workers that we currently have, that makes the problem bigger. It's not a distraction. But there is no solution to this problem that doesn't go through having a highly educated, well-trained workforce. So, yes, I think it's interesting, but we'll be running full tilt whatever.

An important part of this must be trying to get youngsters to buy into the idea?

Yes, part of it is getting people to understand how to program, how to get things to work, how to test. But it all gets back to this idea that we are missing people. We are just not serving some parts of the population. But it turns out that the interest is there, we are just not doing a terribly good job of collecting and harnessing the investment for people who want to work with it.

To give an example, we ran a course for an organisation that was all about tech. We were going to run it local and we reserved 35 spaces. Within 36 hours we had 300 applications from people who were not studying computer science.

What are the next steps for the IoC?

We've set out. We're up and it's working. We've had the big launch event, but now I think we have to do two things.

Now we've got to start delivering at scale. Co-delivering at scale. We've got to make sure that the partnership -- that multiple voice effect -- continues.

We have a programme of new courses that we're ready to deliver. If you believe the figures, we have [need of an extra] 518,000 people that will be educated in this sector by 2022. It's interesting that English universities produce 27,000 computer scientists each year, which means that we probably have an order of magnitude problem.

SEE: Special report: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF)

I think the answer is that we must set ambitious targets in the first phase. But I really want to talk about how we get industry and academia in the same room talking to each other instead of existing in different worlds.

You know, people talk about diversity but the main problem we have is that we just don't have enough people. If follows that reaching new groups means that you have to go about selling things in different ways.

That's why now we are working with companies to help people cross-train, or to have specialisms, or refresh.

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