Comment: Youngsters are key to bridge the digital skills gap

Our goal is for all young people to have access to digitally creative activities, says Brown of Digital Xtra Fund. Picture: Contributed
Our goal is for all young people to have access to digitally creative activities, says Brown of Digital Xtra Fund. Picture: Contributed
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Inspiring young people to understand and create with technology is essential to Scotland’s economic development and future, and is something that business need to support.

The world is changing rapidly, ­largely driven by new technologies. While the pace of change may have caught ­businesses off guard in the past, most now ­realise the importance of investing in tech to remain competitive. However, the largest limiting factor isn’t a lack of funding or ­ideas, but a lack of talent.

Broadly speaking, the two main ways to develop future talent are to upskill the ­current workforce or inspire the next generation at school. Inevitably, the comment I hear about the latter is we “just” need more computing teachers in Scotland. While I agree, consider this first: in 2008 there were 766 computing teachers in Scotland, while in 2017 there were 582 – a 24 per cent reduction.

Last year in the Highlands, there were nine computing teachers ­covering 29 ­secondary schools across an area the size of Belgium. There are several reasons for this decline, but it isn’t due to a lack of demand. However, we can’t just snap our fingers and suddenly have hundreds more teachers in place. Much is being done to upskill non-computing teachers so they can incorporate digital skills across the curriculum, but we must also look at other options to inspire young people into tech.

Digital Xtra Fund was created to bring together businesses and organisations from the private and public sectors to fund and support extracurricular digital skills initiatives. Our goal is for all young people to have access to digitally creative activities, with a particular focus on activities that target girls and young women, or are delivered in areas often excluded through lack of resources or facilities.

To date, the fund has helped engage nearly 30,000 young people across Scotland by awarding a total of £550,000. This year’s funding will support 22 initiatives, covering topics from robotics and coding, to app development and the Internet of Things (IoT). Initiatives include Apps for Good, which teaches skills in app development, IoT, and machine learning in the ­context of tech for social good; Glasgow Life’s Wear-a:bits scheme to introduce coding and design skills using wearable technology; and Islay-based Port Ellen Primary School’s delivery of an afterschool robotics club where children will learn Scratch and Python, as well as how to programme with micro:bits, Lego Boost and other tech.

It’s also key that we provide context to these skills regarding career opportunities. Young people begin course selection in S2 (around age 12-13). At this age, it is obvious what a nurse or lawyer does, but what about a UX designer, Python developer, or scrum master? Why should we expect young people to choose computing studies if they don’t even understand what the career prospects are? This is where it is especially valuable to have industry involvement to ­provide ­first-hand experience and guidance.

Digital Xtra Fund is hugely grateful to industry partners who have enabled us to increase funds available from £50,000 to £100,000 for 2019. We are committed to helping young people learn the skills needed to succeed in a digital world – but we still need to do more.

There are still too many girls who assume computing is not for them and areas where young people don’t have any opportunity to take part. The fact that 82 per cent of Scottish households have internet access means little when it comes to these crucial digital skills. Think of it like this – just because you can drive doesn’t mean you can build a car.

We need to ensure young people have the appropriate skills to create with technology, not simply use it, and we will continue to grow with our network of partners and supporters until Scotland’s digital talent pool is more than sufficient for a nation built on invention and innovation.

- Kraig T Brown, partnership and development manager, Digital Xtra Fund