Time to teach the tech nation

May 23, 2018

We are a thriving tech nation – that is the message from a recent report from TechNation – a group that promotes the development of the digital economy. That the UK is a world leader in technology should be no surprise to anyone. It only takes a quick ride on a possibly delayed train or the near magical arrival of almost any product you can think of within 24 hours, to notice that the UK has changed. A lot.

Commuters have more space on trains not because the creaking Victorian rails have moved further apart, but because the crinkling theme tune of the morning broadsheets and mumbled apologies for inadvertent elbow assaults has been replaced by silent thumbing of smartphones while music is pumped wirelessly from the internet and directly through Bluetooth headphones into the brain. It’s impossible not to notice the ubiquitous devices strapped to our hands, which are now equally adept at delivering minute by minute updates on the Royal wedding, as ordering groceries for the weekend BBQ or firing off email directives to employees no matter where they are, what they want to be doing or what time they believed the work day finished.

Almost every aspect of our life and economy is powered and organised by digital technologies, with even the ancient institutions of Monarchy, Parliament and Whitehall making the switch to digital records and real-time updates on state matters on social media.

Yet, while Tech Nation’s most recent report and headline findings about the success of the UK’s Digital Economy are not surprising (announced via Twitter, distributed as a PDF and available instantly to read on a smartphone, tablet or computer across the world), few are fully aware that this is truly just the beginning.

Or at least, it can be and it should be – the digital revolution has brought prosperity to the UK, with firms now contributing £184bn to the national economy, attracting £4.5bn in venture capital and paying their employees 31% more than the national average. The salaries are well deserved as they are twice as productive as all other workers.

But all of this success has been driven by a minority of the workforce that have been taught to build and work with technology. Smartphones are so easy to use that grandparents can video chat with their grandchildren. Writing the apps we rely on to plan our weekly commute and weekend soirees is another thing entirely, as is using the software to airbrush the photos of celebrities we all see in online magazines designed by digital creatives.

The UK is indeed a Tech Nation, but we have not yet taught the nation how to contribute to the digital economy, rather than just consume and use it.

Digital jobs and firms are everywhere, with London actually falling below the national average in terms of the ‘digital density’ of jobs in the capital, while areas like Bristol, Telford, Newbury and Walsall lead the way in terms of the productivity of their digital workforce.

Yet all of this is achieved by just 2.1 million people employed primarily by fewer than 5,000 high growth firms. It is not surprising that 83% of firms in the digital economy agree that finding people with the right talent and digital skills is their number one problem, as currently just 10% of schools even offer a computer science programme to students.

The government has introduced programming as part of the national curriculum for children at primary school, but this does little to help firms that will need over a quarter of a million more employees in the next 3 years just to sustain their current momentum.

We should and must aim higher than this if we want to avoid firms heading to Silicon Valley simply because they can’t fill jobs here in the UK.

This is not just about teaching children to programme or explore their creative side on computers rather than finger-paint, as 72% of current employees in the digital economy are over 35. Getting people back to work is always the priority for our welfare system, but we should be more ambitious and help people maximise their potential regardless of their age.

It is understandable that people are less than enthusiastic about working hard to find a job paying minimum wage, even if because of Universal Credit they will now at least earn more than remaining out of work.

The lure of an annual salary of £35,000 might be a more effective motivational tool for people not in work.

It is entirely possible and affordable for the state to enable people to learn advanced digital skills. There are already online adult education services costing under £30 a month that will teach people the skills they need to become a web developer in under 6 months.

The shortage of digital skills in the UK is a problem that is so immediate and so acute that policy makers must think outside the physical box and step into the digital world. We do not need to reinvent the wheel to help young people entering the work force and people out of work to get jobs in the digital economy. If government can achieve this, we will all benefit.

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