How the tech sector can provide opportunities and address skills gaps in young people

For those of us whose minds can stretch as far back as 1995 – and, in particular, to one notorious episode of Match of the Day broadcast at the start of the season – it’s hard to forget Alan Hansen’s observation that “you can’t win anything with kids.” He was talking about Manchester United, who went on to win the FA Cup and the Premier League in that year with a team whose average age was around 26. Clearly, as demonstrated by such little-known names as David Beckham, Paul Scholes, and Gary Neville, you can win with kids.

To tech workers, and to young people looking to start their careers in that arena, Hansen’s idea is as incorrect for them as it was for Sir Alex Ferguson in ‘95. As independent charity World Skills UK has recently found, 76% of businesses think that a lack of digital skills will damage their bottom lines, while 88% of young people understand that digital skills will be essential for their careers. As such, it’s abundantly clear that, in a world with growing demand for digital skills and tech nous, businesses absolutely can win with kids – provided they have the desire and, crucially, the opportunities to learn.

It’s especially important to recognise the value of young people entering the workforce now, given that these graduates and early-career workers are suffering from the notable and disproportionately heavy impact of COVID-19 on their job prospects. The Office for National Statistics have made this clear with their report that, early in the pandemic, the employment rate of young people declined more than that of other age groups.

If employers can take positive steps towards addressing this issue while supplying themselves with quality, tech-literate candidates, then we shall find that not only can businesses win with kids, but that kids can find much-needed employment in sectors and industries that recognise and respect their value.

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Skills gaps from classroom to workforce

Even without the influence of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to invest in training young people and to proactively mitigate for the ongoing digital skills gap. This is a gap whose cracks first begin to show at quite an early educational stage. According to data from Ofqual, there has been a huge decline in students that study IT-related subjects – a drop of over 40%, in fact, between 2015 and 2020.

The concern, here, is that the school leavers who form part of these statistics will then go on to number among the 17.1 million adults in the UK (according to FutureDotNow) who lack basic digital skills including connecting to Wi-Fi or managing finances online – people who, in short, are likely to be overlooked when tech and IT companies search for prospective applicants.

To some extent, then, it may be important – as suggested by Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann, chief executive of WorldSkills UK – for changes to be made in schools, as teachers don’t always understand “the possible careers” that IT provides.

Dr Bentley-Gockmann even suggests that employers can play a role at this early stage by going “into schools to explain the range of job opportunities and help join the dots between what young people study in school and what that could lead to as a career.”

Two birds, one stone

However, employers should not think solely in terms of education when searching for new candidates in the IT- and tech-based spheres.

Given the sheer size of the decline in students studying IT mentioned above, it’s important not to assume that young people who lack an early grounding in tech-related skills have hit a point of no return. After all, as far as technology is concerned, none of us are beyond the need for further training and development. The McKinsey Global Institute has recently suggested that as many as 357 million people will need to acquire new skills in the next decade due to the predicted rise of artificial intelligence and automation – skills that few, even in tech-adjacent industries, currently possess.

Keeping this kind of projection firmly in mind helps us to remember that the acquisition of new and essential skills is an ongoing process for everyone. As such, employers should not discount those potential candidates who don’t necessarily come from a tech-heavy background.

With robust on-the-job training processes and a supportive, inclusive approach towards IT talent, young workers who perhaps missed out on IT fundamentals at school or who chose to focus, for example, on humanities-based university courses can absolutely receive the same attention and prospects as those from a tech-heavy background.

A recent government report on aspects of the skills gap has already uncovered an uplifting trend in this direction, with 57% of employers confident that they can find resources to train their employees.

By taking this already upward trajectory to the next level, embracing training and fostering talent among young workers as standard practice, the tech industry can show that you can, in fact, win with kids – providing them with ever-more-vital employment opportunities, closing the skills gap nationwide, and strengthening businesses to boot.

Written by Adrian Overall, CEO and founder of CloudStratex

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