Joanne Harper is principal at UTC Reading

Progress in technology over the past 25 years has been staggering. Today IT is a substantial chunk of UK GVA and is crucial to the country's future prosperity. In fact, the IT and Telecoms industry accounts for 8% (£75 million) of the total GVA. Demand however is outstripping supply. The European Commission has predicted that there will be 900,000 unfilled IT vacancies in Europe by 2015, and a report released by the Government last year showed that UK industry needs 100,000 new entrants a year just to match demand.

At UTC Reading, a college dedicated to computer science and engineering, we are passionate about ensuring that our students develop the digital skills that are needed in the workplace. As a result, we work with industry to try to tackle these challenges and help young people secure a career from an early age. Our students not only have the opportunity to follow their areas of interest in either computer science or engineering while studying GCSE, A-level and BTEC qualifications, they will also learn invaluable practical skills from the best in the industry. Our industry partners include Microsoft, Cisco, Network Rail, Peter Brett Associates, Fujitsu and Autodesk.

The role of our industry partners is fundamental to our curriculum and our long-term success. They support us through coaching and mentoring, and provide real-life practical industry projects for students to work on as well as substantial work experience. Every time an industry partner comes and works with our students their confidence and knowledge improves. Students tell us 'that was great, I've got their business card and I now know what I have to do in order to get into their business.'

Since we opened our doors in September 2013, students have worked on app development with Microsoft and Waitrose, built CRM systems with Salesforce and tested hardware and cloud technology with Fujitsu. These are just a few of the 30+ projects our industry partners have set students.

If we are going to tackle the skills shortage, we have to start at grass-root level, getting students into a mode of thinking before they enter the workplace. Our students come to class dressed as if they were going to the office, with suits and ties. They are also given a personal laptop that they use for both in class and on projects. They do a full working day, following office hours from 9 to 5, and use technology as part of their ongoing learning. For example, every student uses Outlook Calendars to check their timetables and classes. Our aim is to provide them with the skills they will need in the workplace from the start so they are better prepared in the future.

At UTC Reading our students also have the option to complete industry accredited certifications alongside their studies. One of the many offered is the Microsoft Office Specialist qualification. By achieving a certificate in each of the Office programmes, students are preparing themselves for future academic and workforce opportunities. For students who are specialising in computer science, they have the opportunity to become Microsoft Technical Associates in a range of software and web development and the Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Routing and Switching for the students interested in networking.

We also provide Autodesk qualifications, which highlight a student's competence with the software. To date one of our student's is the young person in the UK to become an Autodesk Certified User in AutoCAD.

It's clear that the digital skills gap needs urgent action. Alongside our industry partners, we are proud to demonstrate that we are taking proactive steps like STEM hub meetings and the Innovation hub to help ensure our own students – who are the next generation of STEM professionals - are equipped with the appropriate skills to succeed.

Joanne Harper is principal at UTC Reading

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