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Mind the gap: how to save the UK’s technological future

Closing the UK’s STEM skills gap must be a priority for government, academia and industry.

Saying that technology is evolving is something of an understatement, but what about the people it’s intended for? The pace at which technology is changing is currently in danger of outrunning uptake, risking making the innovations redundant. After all, what good is innovation if no one knows how to use it?

Technology shouldn’t be preserved only for purely technical specialists. Any and every industry should profit from technological progress to enhance products, services and experiences. You don’t need to be a web developer, for example, to benefit from web development. For instance, consider the advent of online shopping or advertising. Yet technology currently occupies some sort of weird purgatory in the United Kingdom’s overall economy. People widely appreciate that technology has advanced and is still advancing, but too few are equipped with the skills, or a will to learn skills, to make the most of the benefits available.

It’s time to get more digitally-minded

This lag is particularly evident within UK business, where better technical know-how is becoming a big issue. Research by Approved Index in March indicated that approximately two million small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK did not have an online presence at all. A YouGov study, meanwhile, found that the average UK household contains seven devices connected to the internet.

One of the principle barriers to better technology skills uptake is perception. Right now the UK is facing a shortfall of around 40,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Often technology is let down by its outward image, one that is hamstrung by jargon or anecdotes about six-year degree courses and lots of exams. Not enough is made, however, of the practical contributions made in society by technology and its potential to change pretty much anything, be that in marketing, manufacturing, medicine or transport.

Bringing the spark to STEM skills

Tata Consultancy Services is tackling the UK’s STEM skills deficit head on. The on-going TCS Digital Explorers Experience Work programme, designed in partnership with MyKindaFuture, is a series of week-long work experience programmes, hosted around the country which aim to expose teenage students to the golden opportunities of STEM careers. Academics and industry professionals take part in the week-long workshops to share their experiences and insights through a variety of presentations, hands-on experiments and group exercises, such as the TCS Spark Salon – an initiative designed to explore the impact of technology in creating a sustainable world.

One such expert, Peter Bagnall, a software developer at UL, recognises that STEM skills are “hugely important” to improving the workforce quality of UK PLC. He said: “My first degree was in physics, and every now and again a problem will appear and I'll know how to approach it because of that background. Both physics and software share a way of looking at the world, that you see a problem, and you break it down into smaller problems, and you keep doing that until the pieces are small enough for you to solve.”

Bagnall added: “Maths is always helpful too, it pops up in the most unlikely places, so being comfortable with numbers, algebra and statistics is going to be important if you're going for a technical career. If you can understand the maths behind something then you know you really understand it.”

Earlier education may be the key

In actively addressing the UK’s STEM skills shortage, TCS is urging academia, industry and government to collaborate more regularly. Shaping curriculums to feature more practical elements, for instance, may be a way of engaging more students to engage and focus on STEM subjects earlier in their learning. Bagnall pointed out that as technology continues to permeate every industry, there is an increased responsibility to upskill people in order to maintain a steady rate of employment. He said: “Employers are finding it hard to recruit skilled people. In the software industry, getting good developers is hard; there just aren't enough of us. That means good ideas can fail due to a lack of skilled people, it slows down innovation hugely. As we automate more and more things, jobs like driving will decline, and be replaced by software engineers who build self-driving cars instead. So the level of skills required is just going to go up – but it's also going to become a lot more interesting.”

Jo Johnson MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, echoed as much in his comments for the government’s Industrial Strategy. “Encouraging students from an early age to have an understanding of science,” he said, “needs to be a priority if the UK is to stay at the forefront of research and innovation. While there have been extensive reforms in the national curriculum, which will be difficult for teachers and students alike to absorb, it must be kept relevant for students’ STEM skills needs as they enter a continually evolving workplace.”

More STEM students means more potential

The UK’s STEM issue, ultimately, is one rooted in numbers: there are too few students studying STEM subjects, not enough people with the necessary STEM skills, and not enough people pursuing specifically STEM-related careers. TCS believes that extending opportunities to access technology experience and insight will improve interest and uptake of STEM subjects and increase STEM skills. The UK must address the STEM skills shortage or risk being left behind by more technically savvy global competitors such as China and the United States and it can only hope to meet the numbers it needs to by casting its net further afield. Bottle-necking investment and industry into London and the south of England, for example, is not conducive to this aim, and thus the country must consider all of its imbalances together.

The most recent Digital Explorers event in November was hosted in Birmingham and is an example of reducing this imbalance. The existing potential of the Midlands "engine" is huge and can only be improved by increasing technology skills and studies. The Midlands is home to 25 universities in total and 50 further education colleges, including high-ranking institutions such as Warwick, Loughborough, Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester; as well as a cluster of manufacturing and automotive firms – Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota and Rolls-Royce to name a few – which provides the ideal backdrop for collaboration and insight.

STEM, TCS contends, should be presented as an attractive and important career path, to anyone and everyone, regardless of where they live in the UK, their gender or social background. Despite there being a shortage in STEM skills, the potential for better national success still remains high – which is why it’s time to take action today, to be ready for tomorrow.

Nupur Mallick is UK HR Director at Tata Consultancy Services.

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.