Why innovation starts with education


The IT sector has a long history of challenging assumptions that we might hold about education. Consider that, for globally-famous tech business leaders like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s often a notable part of their personal mystique that they dropped out of education in order to dedicate themselves to their start-ups. Consider also how many adult education programmes have emerged over the last decade or so in order to retrain people for technical roles.

Many thousands of talented professionals have, of course, entered the industry through what we might call a traditional route, pursuing higher education degrees to set themselves up with the skills they need to thrive. Nonetheless, compared to sectors like law, it’s clear that technology enjoys the ability to enable diverse routes into highly successful careers.

The looming skills shortage

This is something worth remembering at a time when one of the biggest challenges facing our industry is the IT skills gap. As the demand for specialised technical skills skyrockets, driven by a cross-economy shift to digital-first practices, the skills gap is threatening to stymie the agility and growth that businesses need to achieve. Some predict that the economic impact of this will run to trillions of dollars by the end of the decade.

That’s a huge sum, but one which starts to make sense when we consider that, in the UK alone, fully meeting the demand for technicians would require 800,000 more employees. According to Nash Squared, 70% of tech businesses globally now report experiencing a skills shortage, with particular demand for cybersecurity, big data, and technical architecture expertise, while 75% feel that governmental policies are not effectively tackling the shortage of skills.

In this context, I think that we should feel compelled to tackle the crisis head-on – and that means businesses, as well as governments and educators, taking an active role in ensuring that access routes are fair, that young people feel empowered to pursue them, and that the education and training on offer is the right fit for what our future needs.

Educating and elevating

This has been brought home to me through my work with the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, who work to reach out to talented people considering the very start of their careers as technicians and provide the education and insight which might make the difference in opting to pursue a technical role.

As part of this work, research from Gatsby found that, while parents and guardians are becoming more supportive of technical education routes and qualifications, two-thirds say that their child has expressed interest in a career that they know little about, while two-fifths say that they do not understand what a technician is.

We all know how influential parental expectations and understanding is on the career choices of young people. For young people themselves, it’s equally important that we are transparent about what technical careers are really like: those in the industry understand the gap between assumptions and reality around who is well-placed to succeed in technology, and investing in communicating that to the world at large is a key way that we can make careers as technicians less stigmatised or less threatening.

Of course, this is not the only fix for the skills issues we face – and it is certainly not an easy or short-term solution. Businesses are increasingly investing in identifying talent amongst and upskilling their existing workforces, and this is a vitally important way of both meeting the need for technical expertise and delivering lasting careers to valuable employees. In addition, offering IT and digital apprenticeships to young people not only educates future digital professionals, but also allows organisations to benefit from the fresh thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that young people bring to their business, helping to find new solutions to old problems.

Ultimately, however, we need more people entering the workforce in the first place, and championing strong technical education options and connecting the public with the work we do is something that every technology business can play a role in.