Read, write, compute

by Mar 26, 2012 No Comments

Experts from business and education outline the challenge in equipping Scotland’s workforce for the future

It is estimated that the technology sector is worth £4bn to Scotland’s economy. Employing more than 100,000 ICT professionals here, it is regarded as a key driver of future economic growth. Over the next five years, more than 40,000 new entrants are required to fi ll IT and telecoms professional job roles in Scotland.

Demand for permanent jobs in IT and computing is ahead of other sectors and has the fastest rate of vacancy growth. Employment in the IT industry is predicted to grow at nearly nine times faster than the Scottish average.

But the technology sector is under threat as it faces a significant skill shortages and a dwindling talent pipeline from schools and universities. This comes at a time when youth unemployment is at a record high with nearly one in four 16-24 year olds unemployed.

Yet, pupils and students appear to be ignoring this important sector. The number of school pupils taking computer-related courses in Scotland has dropped by 13 per cent since 2006 and the number of applicants to computing-related higher education courses in Scotland has fallen by 33 per cent since 2002. Although girls and women use technology to the same extent as boys and men, women are severely under-represented in the IT profession; only 15 per cent of acceptances to computing degree courses are female.

“Technology drives productivity, growth and opportunity,” said Maggie Morrison, assistant general manager at HP Scotland. “It is estimated to have driven half of Europe’s productivity gains in recent years and a study by Warwick Institute for Employment Research revealed that better adoption of IT by UK businesses offers the potential for a £50bn uplift in gross value added. Alongside these macro benefi ts are the more direct and personal impacts. Technology provides opportunity for careers. It will drive innovation and underpin the entrepreneurial spirit that will provide wealth and security in the long term.

“[But] there is an assumption that IT is embedded in every sector and perhaps because of this also an assumption that it will somehow take care of itself, which is simply not the case. Technology offers one of, if not the, growth engine which can help pull the public and private sectors out of recession.

“The single most important thing that’s needed to make this happen is to ensure that there is a wide pool of relevant talent available. It is critical that Scotland unlocks this potential to drive economic growth and avoid the risk of losing a generation to long-term unemployment.”

Before HP, while a senior director at Cisco, Morrison was seconded to Skills Development Scotland (SDS): “It was a privilege to spend time working in the public sector. I did fi nd the landscape incredibly complex which surprised me in a country the size of Scotland.

“SDS plays an important role in working with partners, including e-Skills, to support the industry. This is not an event – it is a process; building a career in IT requires each of us to constantly assess and develop our skills against current and future labour market needs.

“Its web service, My World of Work* provides information on skills, learning and employment, helping people plan, build and direct their career throughout their lives. Users can see jobs in action, build their CVs, search for vacancies and explore training opportunities in a way that’s personal to them – it is a truly innovative 21st-century approach to helping young people inform themselves about potential careers including specifi c IT industry content.”

At a policy level, what more could be done – or differently? “I believe that we need to link our education system effectively with employability and the careers of the future. First of all, practically every well paid job in any fi eld will involve IT skills so it is something everyone needs as a life skill. We are all going to have to work longer and young people especially will have multiple jobs during the course of their lifetime. In this regard technology can help to provide training when it is required and where it is required.

“While most people believe they can envisage a day in the life of a teacher, a lawyer or a doctor, many people are unaware even of the myriad of available careers in IT. We need to educate young people especially about the art of the possible. I love the recent Raspberry Pi initiative** which is one way of bringing technology alive – boys and girls in the classroom just loved playing with the technology and having fun.”

Should schools be doing things differently to encourage more relevant choices at university? “It is a fact that many pupils, especially girls, are turned off IT before they leave school so I do think we need to revise the way we teach the subject in schools before the point where pupils are choosing their subjects.

“The Curriculum for Excellence principles are an important step on this journey – pupils learn by a combination of education, experience and exposure. Playing with technology and seeing real applications and the impact it can have is far more inspiring than the mechanics of an Excel spreadsheet.

“For me personally, the inspiration was not how technology does what it does, but the difference it can make to our personal and professional lives. As digital natives and consumers of technology today’s young people can make that link. Part of the decision-making process at school should involve information on potential careers in IT so that young people are able to make informed choices at college and university or have the skills required to set up their own business straight from school if that is what they choose to do.”

What should the higher education sector be doing? “With the rise of knowledge economies, higher education is rightly considered key to economic development. Over recent years we have seen successful IT industries emerge in a diverse set of countries, some of which have a limited industrial base or low levels of economic development such as China or India.

“It is therefore no surprise that innovation policies to support high-tech industries are a priority in almost all OECD and developing countries and that the higher education sector is a critical component of such policies. I truly believe that this is a joint effort – we cannot expect educational institutes or industry or politicians to provide the answers alone.

“Employability, links with industry and remaining competitive in a global market with emerging new players is absolutely critical to Scotland’s future economic success. HP is working with the higher education sector and in partnership with certain universities are designing degrees which fi t with the individual institution’s expertise, give access to collaborative research between the university and HP and provide a number of guaranteed jobs.”

HP is celebrating 25 years in Scotland this year and creating more than 700 jobs at its Erskine facility. It engages with the education sector in terms of work experience for pupils, participation in careers events, employing modern apprentices, school leavers, graduates and it provides internship opportunities. “We are not alone in this,” said Morrison, “and the challenge is to work out how the engagement of individual IT companies of whatever size can scale to cover all of Scotland. While HP is proud to play our part we acknowledge that corporations cannot provide all of the answers. Today over a million young people are impacted across the UK – about 250,000 in Scotland – and that has serious consequences for this generation.”

If there was one initiative Morrison would like to see enacted it would be a more imaginative, joinedup approach across industry, education and the public sector “in a simplifi ed landscape which would fi re the imagination of the younger generation. I’d like to see every child in Scotland be taught not only the nuts and bolts – or rather bits and bytes – of technology, but to be inspired to think about how they could build a business using technology.

“We have a proud tradition in Scotland of people who have gone on to become world beaters, in business and in many other areas. Our young people need to be inspired to think how they may retread these famous Scottish footprints around the world.”

Computing has become fundamental to both learning and business, said Alan Bundy, vicepresident of the British Computer Society: “Every academic discipline has been transformed by computational thinking. From biology to philosophy via economics, people are asking new kinds of questions, accepting new kinds of answers and using computational metaphors in constructing their theories.

“Computing now underpins every sector of business, government, defence, education, and so on. Computers have transformed business processes. To flourish in and understand the modern world, it’s vital that everyone understands these effects on society. In addition, everyone needs to be comfortable using computers and an increasing number of people are needed to program them,” said Bundy, Professor of Automated Reasoning in the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University.

“In particular, Scotland must have industries and a workforce that are able to take full advantage of the new opportunities. This education has to start in school and continue at college and university, but the media also has a role to play in educating those whose school days are behind them. Because computer programs are intangible, there is an especially hard challenge to explain them to nonprogrammers.”

Bundy is critical of some computing education in schools, describing it as “little more than training in offi ce products. Students find this boring and de-motivating. It puts them off computing-oriented careers and only skims the surface of what is really required. They need to understand how to get computers to do new things – in particular to program them – and also to understand the way computational thinking is reshaping our society and both the opportunities and threats that this reshaping presents.

“Several organisations have joined forces to change the way computing is taught. A combination of BCS, Computing at Schools, e-Skills, the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh, ScotlandIS and various companies have run a successful campaign to persuade governments to put their authority behind a change.

“In Scotland, the Curriculum for Excellence provides a great opportunity for change. BCS, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, CAS Scotland, ScotlandIS, Education Scotland and various other companies and organisations are running an ‘exemplifi cation’ project, in which a teacher has been seconded to develop materials for teaching computing to students in the fi rst three years of secondary school. The initial draft materials have been very well received in trialling schools.

“Senior secondary computing qualifications need to examine real computing expertise. We are seeing the creation of new computing GCSEs in England to meet this new demand. Scotland currently has some excellent higher and advanced higher computing qualifi cations and it cannot afford to squander our lead.”

Higher education faces a challenge, too: “We currently have a chicken and egg situation in the requirements of computing qualifications for university entrance into computing degrees. Because so few applicants have computing qualifi cations and because many of these qualifications have little real computing content, universities have not made them a requirement. Because they are not a requirement, many students do not see the advantage of taking them.

“This has to change. The hope is that parallel advances in the quality of the qualifi cations and universities highlighting them as desirable – if not, initially, essential – will replace the current vicious circle with a virtuous one.

“Universities must encourage the taking of high quality computing qualifications. They must adjust their syllabuses in the expectation that students will enter with significant computing expertise. They must assist computing teachers with continuous professional development courses that equip them to teach the new computing materials. They must recruit the very best students to take computing by explaining the great career opportunities in, and the intellectual excitement of, computing. They especially need to target females, who are woefully under-represented both as undergraduates and employees.”

Is there more that the technology industry can do to engage with the education sector? “Many companies have been in the forefront of the campaign for computing in schools. Government always listens when industry talks about the needs of the economy. They have helped fund activities such as the exemplification project and the Royal Society report. They have provided equipment, such as the Android phones being used for app development in S3. They provide ambassadors to go into schools to spread the word about the excitement of computing and the great career opportunities. More of this is always welcome.”

Fellow academic, Quintin Cutts, a senior lecturer in the School of Computing Science at Glasgow University, echoed the view of computing being at the centre of today’s economy: “In the modern world, every single industry is underpinned by computing at some level. If you’re in manufacturing, then the thing you produce is likely to embody a computational element of some kind. If you’re in a service industry, your operation will depend on software at some level for effi ciency and communications.

“That is to say, every product nowadays requires some level of computing in its design. This means that a lot of folk are directly in the business of providing computing technology, whether for physical product development, or for the supply of services.

“But beyond those ‘techies’, the folk who are in charge of the design and operation of the products and services must also have a good understanding of computing. To use the modern lingo, they must be able to think computationally. They must be able to see the world in computational terms, in order that they can properly model or design their goods and services to incorporate computing aspects; so that they can communicate effectively with those who actually deliver the computing side; so that they can anticipate and understand the limitations of the application of computing to their output.”

Cutts said that an understanding of computing should rank alongside literacy and numeracy: “When computing technology infuses our society to the extent that it has, the ability to see the world in computational terms – and to think and speak in those terms – becomes as important as the ability to read, write and do our sums.” “It is too easy to believe that all we need to do is produce programmers. What we really need to do is foster some central understandings about computational artefacts – understandings that currently defi ne the difference between the computational haves and have nots.”

Computers are deterministic machines, said Cutts; they do what we tell them to do. “They are not magic. Currently, large swathes of the population treat them as if they were magical.” Computers are also precise, he said; they do exactly what we tell them to do. “Developing this realisation, and acting upon it around computers, enables a user to take large strides forward in their effectiveness.” And people should have the confidence to understand a computer’s operation: “Getting this realisation is a major breakthrough.”

He added: “We must recognise that the development of these core understandings about the computing technology all around us is essential not only to the economy, but also as an emancipation for our society, who are currently in thrall to this technology. These core understandings open the door for users to be in charge of the technology again.”

Cutts, who contributed to the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland as well as initiatives in England and internationally, said: “The educational outcome we aim to develop, therefore, should not be the ability to program, per se, though that may be a side-effect; it should not be the ability to use Microsoft Word, as so much computing teaching has been in recent years; it should be the development of these core understandings.

“In this sense, it is little different from the teaching of other sciences. We teach them because we want to enable our citizens to see the world through the lenses of those sciences – in a physical way, a chemical way, a biological way.”

ICT trade body ScotlandIS is embarking on a campaign to encourage more school pupils and students to consider a career in this vibrant sector and calling for the Scottish Government to give the technology sector much greater priority.
ScotlandIS recommends that the Scottish Government addresses the issue by:
• Embedding the principles of computing in the school curriculum very early on;
• Every school having a specialist computing teacher who is given continuous professional development support;
• Signposting careers in digital technology as effectively as a career in medicine and law;
• Introducing fast-track conversion courses to the digital technology sector for graduates and equivalent;
• Providing training to start-up businesses on how technology can support their business

• Higher than average salaries;
• Transferable skills, offering the opportunity to progress between jobs and sectors;
• A wide variety of roles;
• Technology roles exist in a wide range of sectors, e.g., retail, music and hospitality;
• A flexible working environment;
• The opportunity to travel;
• Working in an emerging exciting industry that is transforming the world.

Will Peakin Will Peakin

Beginning as a reporter on weekly newspapers in the North-East of England, Will moved to Glasgow and worked as a freelance for a number of UK national newspapers. In 1990 he was appointed News Editor of Scotland on Sunday and in 1995, Scotland Editor of The Sunday Times. In 1999, he and his family moved to the south-west of France where he wrote for The Sunday Times Magazine. Returning to Scotland in 2002, he was Assistant Editor (Features) and Deputy Editor at The Scotsman before joining Holyrood Magazine in 2004. He writes for the magazine's business pages and edits its series of...

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