Mentorship Can Help Bridge the IT Skills Gap

DAVOS: This year’s themes and what they mean for the tech industry

For a number of years I have been lucky enough to be part of Microsoft’s contingent at the World Economic Forum in Davos every January. I find it an incredibly inspiring way to begin the year. At its most effective, WEF is a vehicle for exchanging ideas, bringing together the world’s foremost politicians, scientists, technologists and business leaders to discuss innovative solutions to global challenges.

The organisers understand very well that one of the key ingredients of innovation is unfamiliarity – that positive discord that comes from bringing experts out of their comfort zones to interact with others and develop the kind of ideas that really make a difference.

So which challenges are top of the Davos agenda? I see two particular issues standing out: youth unemployment, and the fact that the demand for skilled ICT workers outstrips supply.

The problem of youth unemployment continues to plague the global economy. Of the 1.2 billion 15- to 24-year-olds in the world, about 75 million are currently looking for work – that’s 12.6%. However while the influence of technology on society has never been higher, we live in a world in which the demand for ICT skills in the workplace greatly exceeds supply.

These two issues  appear closely connected, so logically, the digital skills gap could and should be plugged in part by the huge numbers of young people out of work. But there are cultural barriers to overcome. Half of the 75 million young people currently out of work are women, but the technology industry hasn’t always been the best at promoting equal opportunities. How do we inspire change?

We believe industry has a responsibility to lead by example. Since 2000, Microsoft’s DigiGirlz Technology Program has provided free technology education and interactive experiences to nearly 23,500 young women around the world. By providing first-hand experiences, the program aims to advance key technology skills and encourage today’s young women to consider the variety of career options available in technology. In particular, DigiGirlz brings young women with an interest in technology into contact with inspiring, successful women from the technology sector to get career advice, and participate in hands-on workshop sessions.  For many young women, access to new tools and an opportunity to learn from an inspirational mentor are all they need to transform their lives. 

When I speak to politicians and other business leaders about the urgent need to support youth employment, I often tell the story of Mary Mwende. Mary grew up in the slums of Mombasa, Kenya. Her mother, who earns her living selling clothing door to door, struggled to put Mary through school. But against the odds, Mary graduated from high school and returned home to wait for a place at college.

In Kenya, where the admissions backlog is lengthy, many prospective students get sucked back into poverty without ever making it to higher education. But Mary was one of the first 10 girls selected for the education program Global Give Back Circle, an organization founded by philanthropist Linda Lockhart. Funded in part by Microsoft’s YouthSpark program, the initiative provides girls with a nine-month ICT course and a place to live during the waiting period.

Lockhart had been impressed by Mary on a trip to Kenya, and became an important mentor for her. According to Lockhart, “Mary’s world opened up the minute she had access to a computer.”

After completing the course, Mary was selected to represent Global Give Back Circle at the 2009 Clinton Global Initiative Meeting in New York. At the event, Mary was offered a full scholarship to the American University in Dubai. Now 22, she plans to get a master’s degree in public policy. She is applying for graduate programs at Harvard and Princeton, planning to one day return to Kenya to advocate for female education across Africa, and working to narrow the achievement gap between boys and girls.

Mary’s story should be an inspiration to this year’s WEF delegates. There is no silver bullet solution to the IT skills gap; equally, there is no single program that can tackle the myriad causes of youth unemployment. But at a fundamental level, students need to be empowered with the right skills and tools before they can make the kind of contribution on which our economy depends. And above all, they need a human connection -- a mentor who can surprise and inspire them to grasp an opportunity with two hands.

I’m betting every one of the business and government leaders at this year’s WEF had an inspirational mentor somewhere along their path. Food for thought as we prepare to spend the next few days inspiring and challenging each other to bridge these critical gaps.


Jean Philippe Courtois is President of Microsoft International