Digital skills: Gaps and shortages mean it’s time to scale up to level up

Expanding expertise and resources is necessary to tackle skills shoratges and a lack of diversity in the digital sector, writes Mark Smith

Expanding expertise and resources is necessary to tackle skills shoratges and a lack of diversity in the digital sector, writes Mark Smith

10 Feb 2023, 5:00

We’ve heard a lot about levelling up in recent years, and politicians of every colour appear committed to addressing social mobility in regions considered to be lagging behind. Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, recently submitted views to the All Party Parliamentary Group enquiry on the Levelling Up White Paper, setting out how we believe high-quality technical qualifications and apprenticeships hold the key.

According to Tech Nation, tech pay is on average 80 per cent higher than salaries for other jobs in the UK. And there are certainly jobs to go around: currently, around 600,000 tech jobs go unfilled every year due to a gap in digital-trained workers.

One key problem is supply. Over half of secondary schools in the UK were not even offering computer science as a GCSE in 2021, and the number of 14-to-19 students taking technical IT or computing qualifications has fallen by one-third since 2015. We should not be surprised that fewer than half of British employers believe young people are leaving education with sufficient digital skills to access the industry.

Another is access. Just 19 per cent of the sector’s employees come from a lower socio-economic background.

So what can the government do to ‘level up’ tech and how can apprenticeships play a role?

Nurture the pipeline

Since our launch in 2016, Ada has been on a mission to fill the tech skills gap overall, and to empower young people currently who are underrepresented in the industry.

We run targeted outreach activities at schools and work with local authorities where we feel change needs to be made. We use industry experience days to give students opportunities to build networks they could not typically reach. And we offer students coaching to build confidence and tailored support to navigate company recruitment processes and access high-quality employment opportunities that might otherwise not be available.

These tactics are bearing fruit: 38 per cent of our students come from lower income backgrounds and we are the top of the country’s BTEC computing results. If other providers could emulate our approach, this impact could be amplified.

A role for industry

Dismal job vacancy rates indicate tech training is not meeting sector needs. So there’s an obvious opportunity to get industry more closely involved in qualification design.

Ada works intensively with employers’ technical teams on the design and delivery of our education programmes. Our degree-level apprenticeship programmes, validated by the Open University, are designed with dozens of the biggest names in the tech industry – including Salesforce, Deloitte, Bank of America, Siemens, Cazoo and Clear Score.

As a result, these apprenticeship programmes are seen as an aspirational alternative to university. And they lead to high-quality jobs: 95 per cent of our apprentice alumni are in permanent employment in the tech sector or enrolled in higher education courses.

Prioritising industry partnerships in the design and delivery of tech qualifications is clearly something worth building on.

Expand the footprint

Talent exists across the UK, so we need to expand tech training out of London.

Under the umbrella of the Greater Manchester Institute of Technology (GMIoT), Ada has ambitious plans to refurbish a former free school and create a new hub in the north west. Identifying under-utilised public buildings like this means we can establish new campuses more cost-effectively. And the investment is a no-brainer: at capacity, we will be able to work with around 1,300 young people a year and deliver a quick return to the local and national economy, as many learners will be salaried apprentices earning over £20,000 a year.

This expansion does not need to be unique to Manchester, or Ada. Where there is a good volume of employers with technical teams, there is an opportunity for Ada to establish a hub, or for others to emulate our success. The aim must be to open up pathways for aspirational young talent by putting opportunities to learn and work within their geographical reach.

This National Apprenticeship Week, when the power of technical training is top of mind, we need to scale up to level up. Technical skills are in demand everywhere, and we must support a wider pool of young people from every region to access these rewarding careers.

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