Digital technology is transforming every aspect of our lives, having an extraordinary impact on the way we live and work. We are in the midst of the information revolution, but while we’re all becoming adept at using technology – particularly mobile technology – to augment our lives, the revolution that’s taking place upstream of the consumer, among our businesses and industries, is even more important for today’s students. They will enter an employment market that is already exhibiting an urgent need for digital skills, meaning those who possess them will have an immediate advantage in an intensely competitive employment market. That’s why I believe it’s vital that we inspire our students with the ambition not simply to use digital technology, but to seize their birth right as digital natives and shape the revolution themselves by pursuing careers in the growing digital sector. The foundations for this must be laid in our classrooms.
Last year the British Chamber of Commerce released a study in which 75% of businesses reported a shortage of digital skills in their employee base. This lack of digital capability cost the UK economy an estimated £63bn in 2016 and undoubtedly contributes to the fact that productivity in the UK compares poorly to its global counterparts. The Government’s recently launched Industrial Strategy includes £406m in funding to support digital and technical education to address this gap, but to truly maximise the potential of this investment we need to make sure that young people recognise the very real opportunities for them to embark on fulfilling careers in the sector. In short, we have an urgent need to grow our own digital talent.
Fit for the future
As educators, it is our primary responsibility to ensure that our students are prepared and confident to enter the world of work. Here at UTC Swindon, we work closely with employers and industry to understand the skills that young people will need for careers that may span 50 years or more. If we cast our minds back to the world of 50 years ago the scale of the task that faces us is clear: the inexorable pace of change will see today’s students working in roles and sectors that simply didn’t exist when they were at school. This means that the skills they possess must be flexible and transferable, accompanied by an outlook that embraces life-long learning.
In recognition of the fact that students begin making vital decisions about their career paths at an early stage, we’re beginning to welcome increasing engagement from businesses with schools -certainly this is the philosophy at UTC Swindon – to work in partnership with industry. Businesses are looking to equip their future workforce with the digital skills they need that are currently lacking in the workforce; this represents a fantastic opportunity for students. It means that they can learn exactly what they will need to secure roles with these kinds of companies. By taking part in workshops and live projects, students also get the chance to develop the soft skills of collaboration, communication and problem-solving, and they can see the real-world results of their work. This increases confidence and allows students to visualise themselves progressing into roles that make use of their skills and interests.
Digital skills have applications across every business, industry and charitable sector, meaning that wherever a student’s interest lie, they will find more avenues open to them if they can demonstrate solid digital abilities. Quite simply, it puts them ahead of the competition. At UTC Swindon we are finding that there is a lot of interest from companies in the digital sector who are keen to work with students to help open their eyes to the opportunities in the digital space and want to partner with us to achieve this.
It’s not just what students learn at school that prepares them for life, but the environment they learn in and the responsibility they are given to take ownership of their education. Once they begin to make choices about GCSEs and the future direction of their lives, students are ready to encounter a more work-like environment, with clearly articulated targets and plans to achieve them. Introducing this mindset in school leads to smoother transition into the working world and improves the chances of success for our students.
Shaping the revolution
Here at UTC Swindon we have recently launched our digital specialism in response to local employer need. In addition to offering A Level and BTEC qualifications in Computer Science, digital skills will be taught in tandem with the curriculum.
I firmly believe that we have a critical responsibility to foster in our students the ambition not just to use digital technology, but to make it and shape it. We need to recognise that, just because today’s digital natives are supremely confident in using technology, that doesn’t necessarily translate into confidence in programming, developing and enhancing it. We need to build that confidence to create a pool of talent that will unlock greater productivity and a brighter future which is our aim here at UTC Swindon.
Let’s make our students the leaders, not just the bystanders, in the digital revolution.
Jon Oliver, Acting Principal, UTC Swindon