From education to employment

Putting digital skills on the FE agenda

Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust

The expansion of online business is outstripping all other growth areas of the global economy. More people shop online and do business online than ever before and the trend is set to continue.

The digital economy crosses all industries and the potential job opportunities within it are huge. In fact, there are many jobs and skills that will be needed in the next 10-20 years that don’t even exist yet.

Alongside the growing requirement for technically-skilled individuals, such as coders and developers, there is also a need for people with more general e-business skills such as e-commerce and e-marketing.

In its annual report, Tech City UK highlights this increasing skills shortage. A staggering 27% of all job growth in London now comes from the digital/tech sector and the greatest impediment to business growth is the lack of adequately skilled employees.

There is no doubt that we need to equip people with a wider understanding of e-commerce and new global business operations/requirements, whilst also addressing the technical skills shortage.

This is further evidenced by a recent report from the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee, which suggests that 35% of current jobs in the UK could be automated within 20 years. With this digital revolution will come a raft of new jobs, which will require a workforce equipped with new skills.

The importance of ‘digital literacy’ at all educational levels was also highlighted in the Lords’ report, advising that it should be taught as a core skill alongside English and maths. However, there are concerns that teachers are not always confident about delivering the new computing curriculum and students risk being let down.

There is also a great difference between teaching coding and using online tools, and developing the skills and knowledge of digital business, such as e-commerce.

I believe that FE Colleges need to play a crucial role here. They often have the industry links and facilities to create centres of digital excellence, benefiting local communities and people of all ages.

And here lies the central ambition of the Career Colleges Trust. We plan to set up a network of digital Career Colleges (potentially incorporating ‘hub and spoke’ models) across the UK. We want to galvanise employers, learning providers, technical experts, charities and young people – and maximise the huge amount of opportunity offered by this exciting cross-industry growth.

We have already engaged Oldham College as a pathfinder project. It has been working in partnership with the co-located University Technical College – the Greater Manchester Sustainable Energy UTC – sharing best practice and services.

A new £9 million building on Oldham College’s campus housing state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, has just been opened to students. Outside of standard College hours this building will be open to the community and local businesses so that everyone has a chance to use the new facilities, including a high-tech Fab Lab offering digital printing to fast track innovation and development.

And this is exactly what we want to see happening in other FE colleges. Young people should be given the chance to engage with the digital revolution at a young age and discover the huge number of opportunities available to them. We need to ensure that the high quality, employer-led educational pathways are then in place to help these young people realise their ambition and talent.

Harrow College has been given approval by the Trust to open two Career Colleges in September 2015 – one of which will focus on creative and digital media. Birmingham Metropolitan College has similar plans for 2016. These FE Colleges have both, quite rightly, identified the vast amount of opportunity within the digital sector. Ensuring young people have access to high quality training, designed and delivered by industry, will be of benefit to both the students and the economy of the areas.

I am keen to talk to colleges about the ways we can help them engage with such a vital industry. The aim of the Career Colleges Trust is that every young person progresses into work, onto an apprenticeship, further or higher education, across a range industries, with great career prospects.

I find it unacceptable that in our buoyant economy, youth unemployment remains higher than most other European countries. We know that the digital economy is set to provide millions of jobs and we owe it to both our young people and UK PLC to ensure our future generation is equipped to capitalise on this opportunity.

Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust

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