The skills gap in Scotland’s growing digital and ICT sector is “a concern”, according to Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Training, Youth and Women’s Employment. Speaking to school students from across Scotland at ScotSoft, a conference organised by digital technologies trade body ScotlandIS, she said: “The number of young people, and in particular women, employed in the sector is a concern to me, with only 14 per cent of the workforce aged between 16 and 24, and only 17 per cent of the workforce female. We are working very hard to raise the awareness of the exciting and rewarding opportunities available. There is indeed a severe shortage of digital technology professionals, it is a national problem, but we are taking action here in Scotland, because if we’re serious about young people and your place in our economy, we have to be serious about getting young people into sectors where there is work.”
The IT and digital technologies sector, which includes software development, telecoms and IT services, employs 73,000 people in Scotland , accounts for around 3 per cent of the Scottish economy. It is thought the sector will employ 83,000 by 2020. According to Phil Worms, Director of Marketing and Communications for digital cloud company Iomart Group, the sector has 9,600 new vacancies every year, while universities are only producing 1,800 graduates for the industry. “We’re not attracting young people into the industry,” he says, “and we need to sort that out.”
The role of schools is increasingly falling under the spotlight, Constance says: “The development of digital skills has been embedded within the Curriculum for Excellence, and our colleges are working closely and harder than ever with employers to ensure students have the skills our economy needs, and we are funding specific support for computing science teachers in secondary schools.”
Polly Purvis, Chief Executive of ScotlandIS, welcomes the ministerial buy-in to computing, but suggests careers advice at school and home need to catch up, with memories of the disappearing engineering and electronics sectors colouring perceptions of an industry which is growing and presents considerable opportunities. “The careers advice at schools, and teachers’ own perceptions, and parents perceptions of the workplace are behind the curve. If you go back 40 or 50 years, people knew what working down a mine was like, or in the steelyards, or working in a bank was like, and now they don’t really know what is happening in industry, and I think it’s very hard to be a career adviser,” she told Holyrood earlier this year.
Worms agrees, saying parents and careers advisers are more likely to recommend traditional jobs like doctor or teacher than a data centre engineer, despite the latter providing a “cracking future”. In fact, IT jobs offer a salary 50 per cent higher than the Scottish average. Worms urges careers advisers to recommend entering the industry. “Point them in the direction of IT companies in Scotland. Please. Not just engineering companies. IT companies. There are over a thousand of us. We offer opportunities in gaming, biomedicine, science, you name it, we can offer it.”
Speaking to an audience of school pupils at the ScotSoft conference, Worms said: “Have a go at your careers advisers and teachers, demand to get IT people. If there’s any teacher here wants me to come into a school and talk to you about careers in IT, I’d do it in a second. Please, make use of that. ScotlandIS, fantastic organisation, e-skills Scotland, another great organisation, we’ll provide people from the industry to go through to schools and talk to yourselves there.”
The call was echoed by those entrepreneurs and business people sharing the platform with him, including Chris Forrest, Director of Microsoft Scotland and Graeme Gordon, CEO of Aberdeen-based internet service provider IFB, who urged teachers: “Let us support you as an industry. Let us come in and help you as an industry, because we are desperate to fill positions.”
Also lending support was Sherry Coutu, a top-rated Canadian Angel Investor and one of Wired magazine’s ‘25 Most Influential People in the World’, who has invested in Founders4Schools, a free service for teachers in secondary schools across the UK. The programme grew out of the Silicon Valley comes to the UK (SVC2UK) programme and helps teachers attract founders of successful, growing businesses to visit their schools and inspire their students to become entrepreneurs. “What we found was if you get four founders talking to kids about the careers they have done, after that, cool things happen. You actually do want to go work in these businesses. People can suddenly see why what you do in a classroom with a Bunsen burner might actually be relevant to what you might want to do afterwards, and the passions you hold that you don’t really know what to do with yet,” she said.