Michael Houlihan, CEO of Generation UK

It is estimated that the existing digital skills gap sees the UK lose out on £63bn in GDP every year, and that figure is set to grow rapidly. During the Covid-19 pandemic, traditional industries increased their rate of digitalisation as consumer interactions shifted online. That meant associated sectors like cloud computing experienced significant growth, but are still held back by a lack of available talent.

Over the summer, a group of London businesses called on Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson to tackle London’s growing skills shortage, warning that the capital’s recovery from the pandemic was at risk.

Meanwhile, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are becoming more likely to be left behind. Disadvantaged students were most affected by missed learning during the Covid pandemic and teacher-assessed grades have widened the attainment gap – 70% of independently educated pupils got As or A*s this year, while that figure was 39% at state schools.

Geography also continues to influence outcomes. The North-South education divide was felt particularly keenly this year, with the North East experiencing the worst year-on-year change in results in England.

Fortunately, new solutions to tackle these issues have been growing in prominence and impact. Alternative pathways for people to gain the skills they need for the careers they want to pursue are rapidly emerging. If you haven’t already, you will soon be hearing a lot about upskilling bootcamps and mentorship programmes being rolled out across the UK, complementing other important elements of the skilling infrastructure such as apprenticeships and T-level certifications.

The modernising UK economy will require a wide range of upskilling mechanisms to enable people to succeed in the ‘jobs of the future’. Both industry and policy are keen to ensure this progress is experienced widely, which has accelerated roll out of this new provision.

Tailored training

The Department for Education has been increasingly active in supporting skills training in growth sectors, with a key principle being that courses are free to participants. Last month, the Government emphasised the importance of flexible bootcamps as a part of this landscape, closing skills gaps nationwide and modernising the economy. 

The shift towards tailored training is equipping the workforce of tomorrow to meet some of our greatest challenges. Keen to tackle the widening digital skills gap, employers in the technology sector have been some of the first to embrace bootcamp training programmes at scale, accompanied by a widening set of training organisations focussing on skilling in tech jobs specifically. Other sectors will follow. In July, Andy Burnham announced a new retrofitting bootcamp to train 1,000 people in Manchester to meet the growing skills need of the green-sector. ‘Green skills’ will be vital in our efforts to mitigate climate change and there will be tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of important jobs for experts in this field, following Manchester’s example. 

This agile approach is also helping job-seekers respond to gaps in the employment market. The Covid-19 boom in demand for increased cloud capabilities, for example, has led to a demand for people with cloud technology skills. A three-year degree built around a curriculum that has been outdated by the rapid advancement of technology is not what these employers are looking for, as evidenced by the low employment rates achieved by computer science graduates in the UK.

Programmes that train and support young people via a more agile model, developed around the new and emerging skills such as cloud engineering bootcamps are proven to generate higher job outcomes, at a fraction of the price of a degree. The university system will continue to be a critical element of the UK’s skilling infrastructure, but it is not the right choice for every young person, and it is not the right solution for every skills gap.

Looking beyond universities to solve the skills problem

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieved worse than they expected due to the pandemic and teacher-assessed grades, there are other pathways into a successful career. At Generation UK, an education-to-employment charity, we are seeing the successes of these programmes every day.

Parag Pindoria applied to numerous internships after finishing his A-levels and quickly become disillusioned, wondering if he needed to lower his ambitions of becoming a data engineer. He came across the AWS re/Start programme, one of the programmes designed and delivered by Generation, which provides free training in Python and the latest cloud technologies. Parag is now working as a Data Engineer at Sainsbury’s, where he works on various tasks from back-end databases to developing applications for end consumers.

Fatima arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker and was placed in foster care where she began the education track for non-English speakers. She quickly mastered the language and eventually started her BTEC’s in college. Always interested in technology, she was thrilled to land an apprenticeship in the sector, but found she needed more guidance before she could succeed in the sector and found the Generation’s Tech Talent Accelerator Programme. Since, she has quickly received invitations for jobs she previously thought were inaccessible. Keen to give back, and also to build her network, Fatima is also now a valued member of the “Black Women who Code” group.   

Bridging the digital skills gap will require multi-faceted, precise solutions. The conventional path through university may still be the right approach for some, but it is not the only one available. Those who felt like they missed out when it pertains to their grades, still have plenty to be excited about and to look forward to.

Michael Houlihan is CEO of Generation UK, the nonprofit that transforms education to employment systems to train, place, and support people into life-changing careers that would otherwise be inaccessible. Its programmes include free technology and cloud engineering bootcamps.

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