If we want to secure the UK’s future on the tech scene, we need to act now
With Brexit looming, it has never been more important to ensure that the UK has a fresh supply of home grown talent in science, technology and engineering. But attracting qualified workers into the field isn’t always easy. In 2018 the STEM education and careers support organisation STEM Learning found the current shortfall of skilled workers in the UK STEM sector to number 173,000. This is estimated to cost our businesses an incredible £1.5bn per year in recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs.
Diversity is also a well documented issue in STEM careers, with women making up only 23 per cent of the entire UK STEM workforce in 2017. In fact, in ICT alone, female professionals were merely 17 per cent of all employees.
So what can be done? Fortunately, there are organisations and individuals who have made it their mission to tackle this issue. Preparing for the future by sparking an interest in technology at an early age is the aim of the educational toy company Tech Will Save Us. Similarly, getting women involved in tech is the objective of Alexis Monks, who started her career as a Software Engineer Analyst at PA Consulting, and instructor for social enterprise programme Code First: Girls.
Let’s get creative
Tech Will Save us produce the kind of toys you wish you had as a child. From sewing badges from conductive thread, making wireless bike lights, or building your own computer, their award winning STEM products are designed to get kids creative with tech. But where did this all start? Nic Wilkinson, Head of PR & Comms for the company, has an interesting story about its genesis.
“A few years ago,” she says, “our founders – the husband and wife team Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann – actually came across a discarded laptop in a skip. The laptop was in perfect working order, so they cleaned it up and got it working again. For them it really highlighted society’s flawed relationship with technology, and how our outlook is disposable and consumerist.”
So where do toys come into the picture?
“Around this time Bethany gave birth to their son, and as she walked into toy shops she just found them really disappointing and uninspiring. The toys that were available very much seemed like tech shoved inside plastic. So they came up with the idea of how could we get kids from a really young age to create with tech. This is the idea that Tech Will Save Us was founded on. The mission is for kids to create, solve and invent with technology.”
As well as entertaining children in the here and now, Tech Will Save Us’ toys are designed to set them up for later life. Instilling a passion and curiosity for technology in young people is crucial to the success of our future society. If we want them to be the inventors and problem solvers of tomorrow, we need to engage them now.
It’s women who miss out the most
For Alexis Monks, it’s women who miss out the most from a lack of engagement with technology careers. For a variety of reasons, there remain a number of barriers to entry to women in STEM subjects at school and university. This means that following a technology career path simply isn’t a logical option for many women when they enter the world of work. However, we are all increasingly coming into contact with tech in our daily working lives. For many women, the moment they enter industry and begin to meet more technology minded people is where a real interest in tech begins. This is where educational programmes such as Code First: Girls come into their own.
“Code First: Girls is what I would call a sort of intervention scheme,” says Monks. “It is intervening in a stage in women’s lives to give them skills in technology. Women sign up to a course, they join a class of about thirty other women and they basically just learn coding skills from nothing. Courses run for eight weeks, it is two hours in the evening – so after work or after lectures. There are different courses for women in industry and women in university.”
Apart from giving women concrete skills in coding, these kinds of programmes create a unique environment for women to learn from and support each other.
“Programmes like these are so easy to get involved in,” says Monks. “All you need is an ambassador and just three instructors, and you’ve got a Code First: Girls course basically up and running. In terms of a diversity initiative it’s one of the best. The cost is minimal – I do it for free in my evening hours because it’s nice to hang out with a bunch of women that are passionate about tech. As instructors we have a great chance to meet up with other women across the digital sector and help demystify the industry.”
The business perspective
One of the big problems with tackling the talent gap in tech is that even when courses and qualifications are available, syllabuses struggle to keep up with the pace of change. This is what makes attracting the right kind of people so important. It’s less about learnt skills, and more about attitude.
“If you hire people with experience, in the tech industry that can go out of date in two seconds,” says Monks. “There’s so many qualities you want to look for in engineers, that have got absolutely no relevance to experience whatsoever. It’s those behaviours, that curiosity, and that enthusiasm – that’s the only thing I’m interested in. When I run a Code First: Girls programme, if these women get really excited about making their website then I don’t care if they’ve done no programming before, I want them on my team.”
Responsibility is key
Coding programmes and businesses clearly have an important role to play if they want to see the right kind of talent coming through. But why should an organisation commit to nurturing a skilled technology workforce?
“What responsibility does industry actually have?” says Monks. “I think about this a lot. In digital recruitment you want the most qualified, the most amazing, and the most communicative people. So to what extent are you responsible for then training them, and what sort of overlap should you have with the education system?”
“In my opinion industry should be as involved with the education system as possible. If you want to hire the most technical experts that can communicate well, that are diverse in thought and experience, then you do need to start to enter into that space yourself. You can’t just put feelers out there and expect these kinds of candidates to come your way. There is definitely some responsibility to be taken, especially when the education system just can’t keep up.”
Nic Wilkinson agrees that one of the most important factors in educating people in tech is to inspire their imaginations. This can start at a very young age.
“We can do some wonderful things with technology,” she says, “and kids have limitless imaginations. So at a young age, if we are introducing them to the possibilities of tech, who knows what they are going to go on and create.”
For more insights into diversity and inclusion in the tech sector, sign up to our free weekly newsletter.