Should The Tech Industry Be More Involved With Education?

Governments are changing education to fill IT Skills shortages, but is it enough, and should the industry be more hands on?

IT is the future. However you cut it, the technology world has invaded every facet of today’s world. Inevitably this means computer skills are at the forefront of skill requirements in the 21st century. IT jobs are predicted to grow and grow and grow for the next decade or more. So why is there such a problem with finding people to fill job vacancies?

In the US, finding people with the right skills is a problem across all industries. In the UK, there will be a predicted recruitment shortfall of 300,000 by 2023 and even more of a problem by 2050; Big Data analysts are just one example. And this isn’t a local problem; Ireland is struggling and even in Africa this is an issue. At the most basic level there is a scary lack of tech awareness, while a constantly moving industry full of buzzwords means that even industry insiders seem to be lacking understanding.

Are Degrees Enough?

Despite becoming a major job opportunity, enrolment numbers for computer science courses in the US are actually decreasing. Admittedly in the UK they have suddenly surged, but it seems degrees aren’t the prerequisite for success they once were. A survey of 500 tech professionals found that 60% feel degrees aren’t enough for jobseekers, while over three quarters said vocational training is the way forward. The value (or lack thereof) of degrees is clear in New York, where a study found almost half of the city’s tech jobs are filled by people without college degrees.

So what can be done? The UK government has been slowly but surely taking steps to address the imbalance and encourage the kids to get more hands on. There’s the Year Of Code scheme, a project which intends to make coding a major part of the curriculum for kids, and there’s the new Tech Levels, which in turn feed into the technical baccalaureates. Tech Levels will be industry-backed qualifications that will be a part of the more vocational-focused Tech Baccs, with the hopes that pupils will have more hand-on skills that industries actually want, and hopefully delivered in a way that keeps up with ever-changing trends and advancements.

Are MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) a viable alternative for those outside the UK? Perhaps. A recent study by Duke University and RTI International found that only a third of businesses had actually heard of them, but many were receptive to the concept. Doubts about them, however still linger. Much in the same way an Open University course doesn’t quite have the same weight as a regular full time degree, it’s hard to see remote online learning ever taking over from traditional schooling.

But it’s not just the kinds of courses that are the problem, it’s the way they’re presented. Alex Klein of Kano recently spoke about the need to teach kids to code in a way that’s more about creativity and less a prerequisite for a job, and that message should apply across all age groups. That’s not the only issue; possibly the biggest problem is that teachers are seriously underprepared. A survey by MyKindaCrowd found 74% of ICT teachers don’t think they have the skills to teach computer science and 69% feel the government won’t provide enough support to deliver the subject.  If the teachers can’t do it, what chance do the kids have?

Time For The Tech Industry To Step In?

So what’s to be done? Should the tech industry start taking a direct role in the education of children? Silicon Valley already has influence over job creation in the US, and repurposing the efforts of the Valley’s immigration-focused lobbying groups like Fwd.Us to focus on creating more home-grown talent may be a better use of resources both now and in the long run.

Meanwhile in the UK, only 15% of tech business leaders feel the industry is doing enough to promote technology education, according to a TechCityInsider poll. So maybe it’s time for the UK to re-embrace its apprenticeship culture. Russ Shaw, former vice president of Skype, wrote that “Students must be given the opportunity to work in an authentic commercial environment,” and perhaps if the UK’s tech industry, both the big enterprise players and small startups take the initiative and start their own apprenticeship schemes [or do more to promote them] then this skills gap will shrink again.

Another option is for more companies to emulate Microsoft’s approach. It’s TEAL [Technology Education and Literacy in Schools] program encourages its engineers to actually take time out of their own schedule and volunteer in classrooms. Dozens of companies are trying to disrupt teaching with apps and new hardware, but if more companies got involved with actual teaching on the ground, who know much better education could be.