Life-long learning capabilities are key to growth in our digital economy, writes Jane Morrison-Ross, chief executive at digital tech trade association ScotlandIS.
The digital tech landscape is changing – businesses in almost every sector are enabled and empowered by digital technologies. An increasing number of companies are recognising the benefits that artificial intelligence (AI), data and digital technology can bring to help streamline processes, open up new markets and create new solutions.
Already in the first weeks of 2020 we are seeing the potential for digital technologies to make an impact in unexpected ways, with positive headlines about MiAlgae, an Edinburgh-based biotech business which turns whisky by-products into pet and fish food, and cautionary headlines about Travelex that highlight the need to focus on cyber security and encryption.
The recognition that the digital technology industry now receives for its ability to bring real, positive change to the economy and environment is well deserved, but this growing appetite for digital solutions brings new challenges to the sector, too.
There were 13,000 technology roles advertised across Scotland by the end of 2019. To respond to this demand, we need to make sure we have people with the right skills, and that access to these skills is inclusive, equitable and available to all.
The talent and skills required to support and drive the digital economy vary greatly from coding and user interface/user experience design to analytics, security and sales, transformation and marketing. In addition to this variety of skills is the necessity to develop and refresh them. It is essential for digital workers to continually evolve and acquire new skills. To grow digital talent, support needs to be in place to enable this life long evolution of learning.
In the 2019 report “Automatic…For The People?” the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, BT Scotland, ScotlandIS and the Royal Society of Edinburgh called on government, industry and civic organisations to provide strategic leadership and highlighted the importance of digital skills. Since then real progress has been made with the announcement that an AI Strategy for Scotland will be developed. To build on this, government, industry and the education sector must continue to drive change, ensuring equitable, inclusive, virtual access is provided so that Scotland is equipped with the skills we will all need in the fourth industrial revolution.
Digital skills underpin our ambitions for Scotland – to build a digital nation, a digital economy and to grow our companies into sustainable, resilient businesses. These skills also enable and power our key traditional industries – financial services, tourism, food and drink. To meet the growing demand, we must build an integrated solution to the skills gap, creating a digital window to all the initiatives in Scotland.
Embedding digital skills
If we are to succeed as a nation in the next industrial revolution, and enjoy the full potential economic benefit, Scotland has to undergo a new education and skills evolution. The learning environment needs to be redesigned to help re-equip and retrain our current workforce. Life-long learning is key.
Access to skills should be so easy that people can upskill and reskill around their work, childcare and caring commitments, and these need to work for everyone from school leavers to our older workforce.
Starting at primary school, we need to embed digital skills in the curriculum, not as a separate subject but as a way to bring the curriculum to life, whether it’s history, maths or art. There are already individual educators across Scotland who are encouraging students to build digital skills. Toni Scullion and her work with the Turing’s Testers, building a nationwide Cyber Treasure Hunt for pupils across Scotland, is just one example of these individuals who are bringing digital skills into our school halls. But we must facilitate more of this, in every Scottish school.
We need clear pathways into digital skills from every level, at every level. Code Clan and The Data Lab are good examples of industry and government working together to create skills for the future; now is the time to take this model to a wider scope so that every person in our country can access and benefit from digital skills.
ScotlandIS continues to take a leading role on the skills agenda. We are the interface between industry, academia and government and operating in partnership with each of these sectors, we are continuing to look at how Scotland can meet future digital skill demand through working with the skills ecosystem to create that hub for Scotland.
Delivering a digital skills agenda across the whole of Scotland will take a multi-agency approach and industry will need to play a significant role, along with the education sector, if we are to fill the thousands of technology job vacancies in Scotland. The fourth industrial revolution presents great opportunities for digital technologies and traditional sectors, but we’ll only unlock these if we work together.