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Young people are the answer to the UK’s £63 billion digital skills problem

Shankar Narayanan, head of UK&I, Tata Consultancy Services, explains how getting students excited about the digital future will be integral to fixing the UK’s digital skills shortage, and supporting the wider economy

Britain has seen an exponential growth in digital innovation, but the shortage of digital skills is threatening to derail the UK’s position as a dominant force in IT. The UK, at any one time, is facing a shortfall of around 40,000 people with the necessary STEM skills to meet the demand of the digital economy. The British Chamber of Commerce released a study earlier this year which highlighted that 75 percent of UK businesses reported a digital skills shortage in their employee base. Given the ever increasing importance of digital technologies, the issue needs to be addressed if the UK is to remain competitive and take advantage of the growing digital economy.

Closing the skills gap   
There have been many initiatives aimed at addressing this problem with varying degrees of success, but in the six years since the skills gap was first identified, it still dogs the UK technology market. Digital technology has already transformed work, education, government, leisure and entertainment;  it is generating new market opportunities and having a major economic impact across a broad range of sectors. Despite this, the UK Commission for Employment & Skills found 43 per cent of STEM vacancies are hard to fill due to a lack of qualified candidates.

This is a significant problem; it is estimated that the lack of digital skills is costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year, and although the government has recently pledged to allocate £250 million to developing talent across the UK, it is also the responsibility of businesses to play a major part in making this happen.

The only way to address the issue is through collaboration. Both public and private sector organisations need to work together and ensure a mandate is in place to make a tangible impact. Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) works with not-for-profit organisations such as MyKindaFuture and the Tech Partnership, as well as universities, colleges and more than 600 schools across the UK.

Our community efforts in the UK have reached over 200,000 young people, encouraging them to take up a STEM skills career, but there is still a long way to go. We are committed to bringing all the necessary parties together, which is why TCS is opening the doors of London Southbank University to over 400 students for the Digital Explorers Work Experience event series. This is an ambitious programme offering a week-long opportunity for students from years 10-13 in London and Birmingham to experience work in digital industries, understand future tech trends, the changing job market, and hone their career prospects.

Over 800 talented young people from across the two cities will have the chance to network with TCS volunteers and ambassadors, participate in TCS master-classes, talk to and learn from proven entrepreneurs, policy makers and business leaders, and come away with a much better chance of succeeding in the digital world we all inhabit.

Changing perceptions
The challenge we face isn’t just a lack of relevant knowledge or qualifications. Society has preconceived ideas about a career in IT, and those who are best suited to succeed in the industry. This mindset plays just as important a role as the skills shortage. IT and digital skills need to be taught and celebrated at all levels of education, brought to life through examples that young people can grasp. The younger generation, including millennials and generation Z, are all digital natives. They have grown up with technology at their fingertips and do not realise how engrained it has become in their everyday lives. More importantly, they may not be aware of how much they have contributed to the digital dependency we face today.

TCS is focused on educating young people in, and raising awareness of, the possibilities presented by a career in IT; fostering positive perceptions among younger generations. Our Digital Explorers event series is part of a wider effort to ensure the UK economy continues to grow. TCS’ IT Futures programme which, as mentioned, has reached more than 200,000 young people across the UK since 2013, provides a variety of benefits, from coding competitions to one-on-one coaching with our network of UK ambassadors.

STEM subjects need to be implemented across all levels of education, but a conversation must also be had with young people aimed at exploring their interests, ambitions and opinions. At the two Digital Explorer events, we will also be hosting ‘Digital Dialogues’, individual discussions with students to gather insight into the ambitions of young people, their perceptions of STEM industries and what they see as obstacles to building a career in this space. By engaging young people in the dialogue we hope to better understand their needs, and use this insight to improve our STEM skills programmes, thus encouraging more of them to become a part of the future digital workforce.

Education at all ages
We know it’s not enough to focus only on primary and secondary education. As one of the UK’s largest digital employers, TCS is dedicated to helping create and nurture talent across the generations, fostering economic stability. We are leading by example to ensure that our employees are equipped with the digital skills they need and in the last year alone, over 200,000 TCS employees gained over 600,000 new digital competencies.

TCS, along with other companies, is providing free training to its employees both online and offline. However it is essential that all businesses invest in developing talent, and raise awareness of the fact that STEM is no longer isolated; technology has become a major part of all modern business.

In order to remain competitive, UK business and government must work together to address the shortfall we are currently facing, and engaging young people is the only way to do this. We need a sensible and sustainable solution, or we run the risk of letting down future generations of this digital age.

Digital Explorers is a ground-breaking initiative, in partnership with MyKindaFuture, that will offer a week-long opportunity for 800+ Year 10 - 13 students in London and Birmingham to experience work in digital industries and increase their chances of succeeding in the sector.
For more information about a career with TCS, please click here.


Photo: Getty
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Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.