Socrates wrote that "education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel," revealing a universal truth about what it is to learn: that inspiring students is as important as conveying knowledge, and that the ‘’getting of wisdom’’ is in the end an act triggered by stimulus and the freeing of one’s mind. The right teacher can certainly light pathways that a student may fear to tread and in the end the power of an educator can change the course of one’s life.
My own experience is a tale of the unexpected. I had intended to join the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, but as in all interesting journeys took a detour. After studying English and Arabic at University, I stumbled upon the world of technology. This was a foreign place, an unnatural habitat for students of my discipline, but enter I did under the spirit of inquisition and a stubborn need to understand what then appeared to be a dark art. Curiosity, questioning and wonder takes you to places that in the end may become a career - the critical thinking, problem solving on speed and writing code that would manifest in real world things was addictive. In short, I became a technologist.
The technology skills deficit
I had formed a hypothesis that Generation Z would be a confident source of talent for the technology sector. Having grown up in the age of the internet, many of us had assumed that a career in technology would seem natural to digital natives.
It was therefore a surprise to read the results of Accenture’s recent survey of 16-21-year-olds in the UK where less than a quarter of the young people felt confident in securing a technology job, despite almost half believing there will be more jobs in technology because of COVID-19.
This is a desperate shame. With demand for cloud, Artificial Intelligence and robotics skills on the rise, a lack of fresh talent is both a missed opportunity for young people and a potential drag on economic growth.
Refreshing the curriculum
Updating the curriculum is essential to solving the skills challenge, but bolting on coding to the school timetable is not the answer. What’s needed is industry-engaged curricula that reflects the real-world skills requirements of employers, and the broad range of technology roles available today. For this to happen, employers need to lean-in to the challenge and build a proactive partnership with the education sector.
There also needs to be a move away from a rigid focus on technical skills. As set out in our Technology Vision report, no-code, low code tools are becoming increasingly common in enterprises. As the use of these tools become more widespread, technical IT stills such as coding will be less in demand. But what will be required is the ability for people to think about how technology can be applied to solving problems. The focus of teaching should therefore be less on building technology and more on how to use it creatively.
Inclusion for all
Dismantling the barriers to a career in technology also requires an approach based on diversity and inclusion. Our survey found while nearly half (44%) of young women report they have good digital skills, compared to 40% of young men, this confidence slips when it comes to applying for in-demand technology jobs. Just a fifth of young women are confident they could secure a technology job compared to nearly a third of young men.
As a starting point in addressing this issue, industry and academia should look to dismantle the largely illusory barriers between traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects and traditionally female-dominated subjects in the humanities and arts. Employers can nurture talent regardless of academic background, and the skills taught in humanities and arts are highly valuable for careers in technology, particularly as the focus moves from technical skills to applied creativity. Young women today should feel able to apply for a job in technology regardless of the subjects they learned at school and/or in higher education – a change which employers can play a direct role in bringing about.
The right message in the right place
It seems digital channels have more of a bearing on the future direction of young people’s lives than home or school. When it comes to considering careers, social media is the most important influencer for young people – selected by 31% of respondents, just ahead of parents (29%) and teachers (24%).
We must meet young people where they are and paint a compelling picture of the sector and the opportunities it presents to them. We must show how the future economy requires technologists from all disciplines, who can showcase technical and creative skills – that technologists are both poets and programmers.
Across the country, young people are making big decisions about their lives. Ahead of them lie a multiverse of potential futures depending on decisions made now – many of which, like mine, will be little more than speculative, tentative steps into a first job.
As technology plays an ever more important economic and societal role, we hold a responsibility to inspire Generation Z around the opportunities the industry has in store and how it can deliver rewarding careers that have the potential to reshape futures. In the end, we don’t really wander too far from the idealism of our 16-year-old selves. If we can encourage and reward the energy and unfettered belief that we can make a difference through our chosen careers, or our craft, then what a wonderful world this could be. That’s the baton we need to pass on and the flame that will always need kindling.