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'We can't allow skills shortage to lead to a lost generation of talent'


Russ Shaw, former vice president of Skype, founder of Tech London Advocates and a Gazelle Entrepreneur, writes:


Former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker hit the nail on the head this week when he argued that the government is “letting down a generation” of children by failing to equip them with the skills they need to secure a good job once they leave education.

He told the House of Lords that every level of the education system is “dysfunctional” and struggles to meet the needs of the modern workforce.

This skills crisis is two-fold and during my time as global innovation director at Telefonica and then vice president of Skype, I was frequently reminded of the challenges employers face when recruiting.

If we are to ensure that Britain maintains its status as a global leader, we must change our attitude to education and ensure that we have a highly trained pool of talent who can maintain and enhance our national reputation.

To improve this process, greater emphasis must be placed on equipping our young people with the skills necessary for careers in the industries that are fundamental to our economic future, as well as providing them with a strong commercial and business mindset.

Central to Britain’s status as a world-beater is our burgeoning tech sector. As appetite for UK tech grows, it is vital that we have the ability and aptitude to meet and deliver this demand.

A study by Development Economics found that the UK would need 750,000 additional, digitally-skilled workers by 2017 if it is to capitalise on a £12bn economic opportunity. Nearly 200,000 of these new jobs are particularly suited to young workers.

With more than 900,000 young people out of work, now is the time to ensure our digital natives are given the opportunities to access careers to which they are ideally suited.

Almost 1.3 million highly-trained scientists, engineers and technicians will be needed in Britain by 2020, where many companies already rely on migrants to fill fundamental roles.

Anyone familiar with the UK’s tech sector will know that the biggest challenge facing our startups is sourcing the right talent.

At Tech London Advocates, our education and immigration working groups have frequently cited this as a barrier. We cannot allow this skills shortage to give way to a lost generation of talent. Stem (Science, Technologies, Engineering & Mathematics) skills are crucial to a thriving and prosperous economy, but we still do not give them the attention they deserve.

This can be seen by the recent Stem skills gap report carried out by YouGov, which revealed that 59 per cent of businesses and 79 per cent of universities believe there are not enough skilled candidates leaving education to meet industry's employment requirements.

Stem centres, such as those being pioneered by the Gazelle Colleges Group, are a fundamental step in the right direction.  Gazelle has set aside £1.2 million of dedicated funding to build Stem centres in their colleges across the country, which will go a considerable way to ensuring our young people have the skills they need to enter the workplace.

The centres are truly impressive, bypassing staid and traditional teaching methods and using hands-on, innovative techniques that allow students to learn about crime scene analysis, medical treatments, and transportation engineering through themed activities. This provides students with the tangible experiences that are vital in bringing Stem subjects to life.

According to Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables, 15-year-olds in Shanghai are three years ahead of their UK counterparts in mathematics. If the UK is to compete globally, Gazelle’s model must be replicated elsewhere in the education sector and initiatives such as the UK Digital Skills Task Force, led by Maggie Philbin, must be supported. 

However, equipping students with a strong set of Stem skills is not enough to make them work-ready or able to lead our future workforce. As is the case in other European countries, such as Germany, more emphasis must be placed on learning-by-doing and a greater premium afforded to gaining real business experience.

The recent commitment unveiled in the chancellor’s budget to create 100,000 more apprenticeships was a welcome development, but we can still go further. Students must be given the opportunity to work in an authentic commercial environment, with the chance to learn how the business world operates and how they can best excel within it.

Our education system currently faces a serious threat to its success. We have to stand up and accept the challenge if we are to face it head on, or else risk losing our position on the global stage.


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