IT used to be an area of niche interest until the geeks really did inherit the earth in the shape of innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
The combined impact of new trends and innovations like the Internet of Things and the advent of 3D printing have been described as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the value of the tech industry is a huge part of both the UK and wider global economies.
According to the Tech Nation 2016 report, nearly 60,000 digital tech businesses are active in the UK. Silicon Roundabout might get the media attention and more than its share of venture capital investment, but three quarters of the country’s tech businesses are based outside of London.
The estimated combined turnover of all UK digital tech industries reached £161 billion in 2014, and in turnover terms the industry grew almost a third (32%) faster than the rest of the UK economy between 2010 and 2014.
The industry accounted for 1.56 million jobs across the UK, which is a growth of 11.2% in the same period. Again, this was around a third higher than it was in the wider UK economy.
Despite the importance of IT and related tech skills to both the economy and individual members of the emerging workforce, an IT skills gap remains at all levels, from the top to the bottom.
In 2015, 43% of UK companies said they struggled to fill vacancies in tech specialist roles, with 85% citing skill shortages as the primary reason.
The British Chamber of Commerce’s latest workforce survey, meanwhile, found that two-thirds of businesses believe tech knowledge is key when hiring in a wide range of roles.
It is rare to find a skilled job that doesn’t require at least a basic level of technical knowledge, whether this involves word processing and spreadsheets or online literacy. Despite this, a quarter of these businesses still reported digital skills shortages.
According to Go.On UK, a charity set up to promote digital skills, more than 12 million people and a million small businesses in the country do not have the skills to prosper in the digital era.
The five basic skills listed are the abilities to manage information, communicate, make payments, solve problems, and create content online. Digital exclusion, according to the charity, is frequently linked to poverty and a lack of infrastructure.
Most commentators agree that a joined-up approach is needed, from schools to institutions offering more advanced courses. When it comes to teaching IT and tech-based knowledge, however, there is still a lot of debate about the best way to go.
With digital technology being such a fast-moving sector, it’s generally seen as less important to teach the skills to use individual hardware and software systems and far more useful to impart familiarity and adaptability when it comes to using technology.
It’s almost impossible to predict the exact forms that technology will take in even the relatively near future, so it’s crucial that a new generation of IT leaders are able to adapt to a changing tech landscape.
The government’s focus has been on pushing computer science at the expense of a wider ICT study. Coding can certainly be a vital skill, and once a certain skill level has been attained, it can be kept up to date and adapted.
The ditching of ICT has proved controversial, however, with many teachers arguing it is narrowing the options for pupils who are not interested in taking a rigorously academic computer science course.
Appearing before the Commons science and technology committee, schools minister Nick Gibb admitted the new-look curriculum would be “very challenging” to deliver when apprehensions were raised about a scarcity of computer science teachers and restricted expertise among existing ICT teachers.
In California’s Silicon Valley, however, computer science graduates are in huge demand. Alex Aiken, chair of Stanford’s computer science department, said: “More and more activities are being automated, but the demand for people with the ability to design and build such systems is insatiable.
“I don’t know what percentage of the world’s important software is written here in the Valley, but it is a certainly a significant fraction, and we are not producing anywhere near as many people as industry would like, [even though Stanford’s] major [in computer science] has grown by a factor of four in the past five years.”
As all industries naturally become more and more computer driven, this demand for new talent is not set to slow down anytime soon. This automation in itself is driving growth in a whole new sector dedicated to protecting and securing data and hardware.
Companies such as Black Umbrella, headed up by Catherine Hooper, target companies that are seeking to protect their equipment and systems from natural disasters.
It seems that although automation in a company can initially cause job losses, the very need to improve and maintain these systems creates new opportunities. The only trade off, of course, is that now tech skills are becoming a necessity.
Computer science is an important skill for IT leaders of the future to learn, but so is a flexible and adaptable approach to a sector that will undoubtedly continue to grow and evolve almost beyond recognition.