I recently read with interest an article for a new Guardian series about Digital Literacy, and a significant issue facing Britain at the moment; namely the lack of workers with digital skills. To quote directly from the story,
Britain is facing a shortage of workers with programming skills, fuelled by poor-quality training courses in universities and colleges, which has left firms in fields ranging from advertising to Formula 1 struggling to recruit. Leading companies…say they require staff at a senior level to be computer literate, combining digital skills with the ability to lead a team. But they face delays in hiring the right staff, or have to give new employees extensive training because many computer science courses are nothing more than "sausage factories".
For me one of the most interesting things about this topic is that to a large extent, right now, both Jersey and Guernsey are facing a very similar situation. In a fast-moving and quickly growing environment, employing people with the right digital skills is absolutely essential in securing our future.
At a time when providing jobs is a key priority for the UK Government, there is some irony in the fact that there is reportedly an abundance of ICT roles available, and an abundance of interested candidates, but a worrying lack of the digital skills that would make them employable. Despite the recent growth in unemployment in the Channel Islands, ICT roles are still advertised for regularly; at C5 Alliance we recruited 23 new people in 2011 and we were lucky with the calibre of talent we managed to secure – but it wasn’t easy. Unless a longer-term strategy is adopted to fill the growing digital skills gap things are only going to get harder.
Some good work is being done to resolve the problem; Highlands have now taking 20+ students onto their IT Degree Course, working with C5 and others in the industry to form and develop their curriculum. However there is a more fundamental issue, beyond just providing access to the right courses. Generally in schools, teaching has moved towards a focus on how to use IT, often skipping the necessary core theory and learning that would enable someone to know how to create IT.
In the recent Guardian Article, Alex Hope, Managing Director of the visual effects firm in the UK commented on this matter, saying;
An understanding of maths and science is fundamental to many of the disciplines in our industry.
Closer to home Karen Paterson of global payroll company Acrede recently spoke about the need to support ICT education and the development of Jersey’s digital skills, saying:
I think of computer science in the same way as maths and English. These days it is as important as your basic understanding of English.
If we are not giving students the knowledge they need to be able to create and develop new tools and solutions, as a populace we risk losing not only skills, but also our ability to compete in business. We should not only be asking, “do we have IT courses available?” but – “How are they taught? Is the creative side of the process covered and facilitated? Are basic building blocks like math and science being used and applied?” At the very least this would make IT a more interesting and popular subject.
When the emphasis moves from ‘how to use’, to, ‘how to create’, for example, the visual representation of a complex business process and improve it using workflow tools, a system to make vast quantities of data visual, or design a smartphone app to solve a problem . I believe we might have more enthusiastic engagement from students.
Over the last few years there has been a dramatic fall in the number of pupils taking a GCSE in ICT, and to quote the education secretary Michael Gove, this may be because the existing curriculum in ICT has left children "bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers”. He has recently announced some radical changes in the teaching of computer science in school, saying.
Imagine the dramatic change which could be possible in just a few years, once we remove the roadblock of the existing ICT curriculum. Instead of children bored out of their minds being taught how to use Word and Excel by bored teachers, we could have 11-year-olds able to write simple 2D computer animations using an MIT tool called Scratch. By 16, they could have an understanding of formal logic previously covered only in university courses and be writing their own apps for smartphones.
This is an inspirational vision and one that we in the Channel Islands should also be doing more to embrace. Over the last twenty-five years we have been through an IT revolution, but what was once considered the exciting leading edge is now being taken for granted. IT has started to become just a tool, instead of also being treated as an intellectual subject.
If this downward knowledge trend continues, while the pace of IT innovation in other parts of the world increases, we risk becoming a Digital Idiocracy, to reference the 2006 Mike Judge film, a comedy which shows a dystopian world where people have lost the ability to build or create anything new, and the tools that provide them with food and warmth slowly decay without the understanding to repair them. Obviously this is a humorously presented, dramatic end scenario, but there is relevance to the real life situation I am discussing.
To make the changes necessary to improve matters, government support is absolutely vital, but so is a sense of industry responsibility. If we want the Channel Islands to become a centre of competitive excellence for ICT, that goes hand-in-hand with making ourselves a centre of excellence for the right sort of education. This will benefit business, but it will also benefit the community, and the most positive and sustainable Corporate Responsibility Strategies are those where everyone’s interests are aligned.
There is currently serious discussion taking place regarding the formation of a new independent ICT industry body In Jersey, which could (and I believe should) become a conduit for the development of a strategy to improve ICT skills on the island. To support the new organisation if and when it is formed, I believe the creation of a voluntary Jersey ICT Education and Resources Group made up of key members of our industry would be a significant step to making this happen.
As an industry it is now essential that we establish some clear objectives, a plan to meet them and find resources to do our bit to address this significant issue. In the long-term, our own business success will ultimately depend on the action we take now to improve the development of digital skills.