Today’s kids are digitally savvy, right? Adults expect teens to have a handle on what it means to navigate the digital world, live as a digital native and fit seamlessly into a digital future.
If that’s the case, I came across some very unusual teens when I recently visited 70 children at a school in Liverpool.
For a start, they don’t think digital is "cool". What I think of as a fun, creative and inspiring industry, they see as writing computer programmes, parked behind a desk – this is because the current curriculum teaches ICT or computer science, both of which are merely subsets of digital.
The irony is that it’s what they’re doing at home – chat, games modding, collaborating and design – that’s at the heart of digital. Kids just haven’t been shown how to make that connection.
Programming is just one niche. Client services, problem-solving, augmented reality, designing concepts and storylines and so much more besides populate the digital world.
On the other hand, because working in digital already covers so much of what they already do at home, there’s also a sense of disbelief that it’s actually a job. One child was incredulous that social media manager was a role that you would be paid for.
Clear digital pathways
So disbelief translates into salary expectations. None of the children I spoke to expected to get highly paid in a digital job. They couldn’t believe someone would pay you a decent wage to do fun things.
I want to grow children's interests in digital careers and to do this we need to stop thinking that, as digital natives, they’re just going to somehow fall into it. We need to promote it as a real career choice, with real prospects and potential and a real salary at the end of it.
It doesn’t stop there. In every other sector, the pathways are clear. In medicine, learning is followed by qualification, followed by skills training, followed by career growth. In manufacturing, vocational training is followed by certification, followed by experience-gathering, followed by promotion.
Digital has been moving so fast, there’s been no such clarity and there are multiple routes in. Our expectation as an industry has been that education needs to keep up with us to provide us with future talent – not that we have a role in providing that training.
Agile, start-up environments have their strengths, but training isn’t one of them. There just isn’t the time or the manpower. And when we do get around to training, we fear that we are training people up for higher-paid jobs... elsewhere.
More training is needed
In the 1980s, the average young person got two and a half weeks of training per year. In 2011 it was hard to find a young person who had been given a single day’s training in five years. We have got to get with the programme and close that skills gap – pronto.
What we need to see is businesses supporting other organisations that are helping to close that gap. In education, we need to link our sector with schools more regularly than just a single “Digital Day”. Couldn’t we also be helping teachers by giving them some knowledge and support around digital?
IDEA is a kind of Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme for digital. But it isn’t just for children. Get the adults involved, too. Let’s have parents and children taking these awards together.
In the Studio School Liverpool, from Year 9 they have a standard curriculum four days a week, then one for project-based learning. They may learn .net - a fundamental part of Microsoft’s core technology – or Java and the Unity gaming engine, too. Industry mentors work with these students to help them understand how the industry works. In 12 weeks of mentoring of just one lesson every two weeks, one of the students was able to join a local digital agency for a paid internship over the summer holidays.
BIMA is in charge of a number of initiatives – placement frameworks for agencies to bring children in from single-day digital experiences for week placements and internships is just one – but we can’t do it all ourselves.
Only around 75 per cent of ICT teacher jobs were filled, according to the 2016 Digital Skills Crisis report by the government. Teachers have never been part of our industry. How is your average IT teacher supposed to stay on top of trends and teach full-time? They need support from the private sector and the Studio School Liverpool is a great example of how this partnership can work successfully.
So much about getting our next generation into work "digital-ready" begins with changing attitudes. The approach to education has to change. The sealed, learning environment focused on solely passing a test so that schools can meet measurements isn’t fit for purpose in a digital future, and the private sector needs to help. The digital sector has flourished on failing and recovering quickly with ideas. But the digital sector attitude needs to change, too. Training has to become part and parcel of being a digital employer. Growing, nurturing and collaborating. As the saying goes, it takes a village. We have a responsibility to our future workforce.
Amanda Follit is chair of young talent at BIMA (British Interactive Media Association)