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Talent Pipeline Risks Limiting New Tech Department

Mark Smith, CEO

Talent Pipeline Risks Limiting New Tech Department: Digital college chief addresses Parliamentarians and sets out asks of government

The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology offers a fantastic opportunity for digital Britain – but only if we address education, skills and talent supply

I was pleased to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Digital Skills, and an expert panel from business and academia, this week at a discussion about the opportunities presented by the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

Certainly, government’s ambitions for the department – to ensure the UK is the best place to start a tech business, and able to attract and develop the best talent – are laudable. And few would argue with the Chancellor’s aim to “combine our technology and science brilliance with our formidable financial services to turn Britain into the world’s next Silicon Valley”.

But how achievable is that?

The truth is, we have a real problem with tech talent supply in the UK. According to Tech Nation, over 800k tech and digital job vacancies were available between January and May 2022. Yet fewer than half of British employers believe that young people are leaving education with sufficient digital skills to access the industry. And with Tech Nation reporting that average tech pay is 80 per cent higher than for other sectors, this is a missed opportunity to bring about positive social mobility.

So for government and the new department to fulfil its aims, it will need to strengthen the pipeline of digitally trained young people, especially those from non-traditional backgrounds.

As I set out at the debate, there are some simple things it can do:

Firstly, we need a national campaign to improve awareness of tech-focused careers in schools. While not a criticism of hard working careers officers, careers education is too often neglected within schools and, as budgets come under tighter pressure, this is a worry. Inevitably, finding opportunities to research and engage with so-called ‘new’ industries is hard and consequently, the knowledge base is low. Ada runs a targeted outreach programme with schools, particularly focused on those from underrepresented groups and with the backing of companies like Bank of America, we have been able to engage with 79 schools and 54.9% of our learners are from low income backgrounds. An endeavour of which we are proud, but honestly, a drop in the ocean.

Secondly, there needs to be a concerted recruitment drive to bring Computer Science teachers into the workforce. We have seen how financial incentives such as student loan waivers, generous repayment terms, and bonus payments at the end of three years post qualifying, have had a positive effect for other under-recruited subjects like Physics. So if the UK is going to come close to bringing quality digital skills education into schools, this is a no brainer.

Lastly, and you would expect me to say, in Ada, I believe we have a model that works. Our number one aim is to ensure young people develop the skills industry actually needs and so we codesign our curriculum in collaboration with employers from companies like Bank of America, Deloitte, Salesforce and King, and provide intensive on-to-one coaching and access to influential networks that might otherwise not be available to our students.

This is paying off. 91% of Ada’s apprentice alumni are in aspirational tech-focused jobs; 43% of our most recent graduating cohort of apprentices achieved 1st class degrees validated by the Open University with 100% passing their degree programme; and our high performing Sixth Form was the top centre for the Computing BTEC nationally in 2020.  But we are one college, and additional funding would enable us to scale up our successful approach, and expand into other parts of the country.

So while it is great to see tech at the Cabinet table, with the policy influence and financial clout that brings, without prioritising education and skills within the mix, we will never create the workforce needed to achieve government’s ambition. Or realise the transformational potential of tech to bring economic prosperity to aspiring talent, regardless of background or location.

The new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology is a fantastic opportunity for government to prioritise funded policies that will support the FE sector to encourage up-stream skills development and new education-industry collaborations, like those we have seen succeed at Ada.

By Mark Smith, CEO of Ada, the National College for Digital Skills.