What are the digital skills employees need for the future?

Picture: TSPL

Picture: TSPL

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EMPLOYERS often have a stereotypical picture in their minds of the staff working in their information technology (IT) departments – unshaven men wearing Warhammer T-shirts and pairs of faded jeans, hiding behind computer screens.

Yet that caricature is quickly disappearing. Experts say that, over the next decade, staff working in IT won’t just need technical skills such as coding and search engine optimisation (SEO) in order to help their companies stay innovative and competitive; they also need wider skills.

Picture: Creative Commons

Picture: Creative Commons

“People talk a lot about 21st century skills, like communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, curiosity and computational thinking,” says Steve Beswick, senior education director at Microsoft UK. “But they’re not 21st century skills, they’re timeless skills.”

The best data scientists now and into the future will be those that understand the importance of creativity and communication – people who have balance and can perform the analysis, while also displaying creative skills about the insight from data and how you present this to others. In this way people with the requisite abilities will augment the technology with human skills and attributes and vice versa.

The need for a mixture of “hard” skills – such as programming, cyber security and SEO – and “soft” skills like communication, teamwork and problem solving has also been recognised by Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the national skills agency.

“The ‘softer’ skills are hugely important – it’s something that I hear from employers every day,” explains Claire Gillespie, SDS’s key sector manager for information and communications technology (ICT) and digital. “A lot of people have preconceptions about tech roles and the people who perform tech roles.

There’s a phrase kicking around at the moment that “Data is the new oil’ – if businesses can harness data then it can be a big money maker for them. But they need staff with those quality data skills to harness that information.”

Claire Gillespie

“Tech is a huge part of the job, but actually members of staff also have to be able to communicate with customers, whether they’re internal or external. They can only be effective as programmers if they can communicate what they’re doing using simple terms.

“A lot of tech jobs are perceived as being quite isolated, with people focusing solely on their own work, but actually people rarely work in isolation and are normally part of a much wider team.”

Trade body ScotlandIS thought many students entering the industry didn’t have enough “soft” skills and so worked with Edinburgh Napier University and the Scottish Funding Council to develop e-Placement Scotland.

“We give students the opportunity to undertake good quality work placements lasting for a minimum of three months before they graduate from college or university,” says Polly Purvis, ScotlandIS’s chief executive. “Those placements are all about soft skills – how to work in a team, being appropriately dressed and getting to work on time.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the opening of CodeClan. Picture: TSPL

Deputy First Minister John Swinney at the opening of CodeClan. Picture: TSPL

Scotland’s tech sector is crying out for candidates with the right mix of skills. Last year, [2014] the Scottish Government launched its skills investment plan for the sector, which identified that there could be up to 11,000 tech job opportunities each year until 2020.

Coding

IT already employs around 73,000 people and contributes some £3 billion a year to the economy. But one of the shortages identified in the plan was the lack of candidates with appropriate coding skills.

The industry responded by creating CodeClan, Scotland’s first dedicated digital skills academy, which takes people with no programming experience and teaches them how to write code within 16 weeks. CodeClan opened in Edinburgh in October and further academies are planned in other cities.

While employers are continuing to demand experience of programming languages such as C++ and Java, Gillespie has also noticed increased interest in candidates with experience of open source software. But she advises entrants to the industry not to get too hung up on learning any single code.

“A lot of employers don’t need new recruits to understand a particular language when they arrive,” she says. “They need people with good analytical skills and underpinning computational skills. They can then train them to learn a specific language.”

Coding isn’t the only “hard” or technical skills that employers are looking for. Data analysis, cyber security and website design are all high up on the agenda too.

“One of the big questions is how do you analyse big data to get big answers?” says Beswick. “A lot of data is being produced by the systems that we use today and so the skills that are going to be needed in the future are analytical skills.

“The analysis of big data isn’t just for us in the technology sector – big companies around the world, like airlines and banks, are generating huge amounts of data about their customers and their markets. They will need data analysts to help make sense of that data.”

Gillespie adds: “There’s a phrase kicking around at the moment that “Data is the new oil’ – if businesses can harness data then it can be a big money maker for them. But they need staff with those quality data skills to harness that information.”

Purvis highlights a resurgence in the need for skills relating to the telecommunications sector, with the rollout of super-fast broadband triggering an increase in the number of companies working around voice over internet protocol (Voip) telephony and other areas.

“Scanning the horizon, I think that robotics and artificial intelligence will also become bigger areas,” adds Gillespie. “There aren’t many companies asking for those skills at the moment, but I don’t think we’re far away from it now, because of the development of driverless cars and technology in the home that can be automated. We need people who can design these pieces of technology, both from an engineering point of view but also from the software side.”

While digital skills are in demand, both ScotlandIS and SDS have emphasised that companies also need their technical staff to have a broader awareness of how their businesses work. Universities have responded by creating specific courses, including Glasgow Caledonian University, which is offering a degree in IT management for business.

Another way young students in Scotland can earn recognised qualifications for their digital skills that are applicable in a huge breadth of career choices is through the newly launched PC Passport and MOS Scotland Championship, from the SQA and Prodigy Learning. MOS qualifications show employers that candidates are familiar, comfortable and enthusiastic to use the productivity tools utilised by businesses and organisations the world over.

Purvis also points out that the demand for digital skills is also spreading to other parts of the economy. “We’re starting to see increased demand from non-technical companies for the types of skills that you would have traditionally seen in a software or IT business,” she says. “On a day-to-day basis, retailers that are trading online increasingly need people in-house with SEO, analytic and web development skills.

“People with skills centred around technical security are also in demand and I believe that demand is going to increase – I don’t think any business now can fail to take the threat of cyber-attacks seriously. The more business you do online then the more you have to take those threats seriously.”

With digital skills becoming more and more important in the wider economy, Microsoft is working with its partners to ensure that school pupils are given the change to develop the talents they need.

“We’re working with the BBC and others to get children interested in coding at an earlier age,” says Beswick. “That doesn’t mean that everybody will become a programmer, but introducing coding to younger children helps to improve their maths and English skills.

“You can introduce the concept of an algorithm to a five year old by talking to them about putting sentences in order or how you need to follow the steps in a recipe one after the other in order to bake a cake. If children like computers then you can tease them into becoming more interested in maths too.

“Everybody should know how to use a computer – that should be like passing the driving test. But you now also need to know a little bit about what’s going on underneath the bonnet of your car – just like an entrepreneur needs to understand about creating websites and getting to the top of a Bing or Google search for their company.”

- This article was produced in partnership with Microsoft

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