What digital skills will the workforce of tomorrow need?

Child study

Written by Zoe Amar FCIM , Founder and Director, Zoe Amar Digital.

I’m writing this in an unusually quiet house. It’s 9am on a Monday morning and normally there would be a cacophony of Zoom assemblies, Teams calls and frantic typing at this time. Today my kids have gone back to school. 

This lockdown was a very different experience for my two primary school aged children. The DfE mandated that schools had to provide at least 3 hours of remote education a day, with Ofsted publishing a guide to best practice. Although many of us feared for weeks beforehand that another lockdown was inevitable, the speed with which schools closed forced teachers to move to online delivery overnight. This would be a major ask of any sector and digitising something as complex as the curriculum and the individual learning journeys of children was a huge challenge. 

When I spoke to the headteacher at my kids’ school I was struck by how he and his colleagues had, without realising it, become service designers. They, like many other schools, made huge efforts to embrace remote learning. Yet there have been significant issues in helping kids below the poverty line learn remotely. Ofcom estimate that up 1.8 million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, whilst more than 880,000 children live in a household with only a mobile internet connection. Without the lifeline of technology their education has suffered, with a knock on impact on life chances, inequality and wellbeing. 

It’s taken a pandemic to reveal the human cost of the digital divide. And looking ahead, what worries me is the gulf between where we are in the UK currently with access to tech, and where we will need to be when my children’s primary school classmates enter the workforce. PwC predict that by the mid-2030s one-third of all jobs could face the risk of being automated, whilst there could be as many as 50 million jobs in AI and robotics by the start of that decade. However we are already facing a STEM skills gap in the UK, which is estimated to cost businesses £1.5 billion a year. 

We need to learn the lessons that the lockdowns have taught about digital and education, and take action to meet this challenge. And the burden shouldn’t just fall on schools. It’s going to take a concerted effort from government, the education system, parents and the rest of the village required to raise a child to help get our kids ready for a digital future. Here are some things we need to consider. 

 

  • Rethink the role of digital on the curriculum. Maggie Philbin, CEO at TeenTech, believes that students won’t get the full benefit of tech skills if they are taught them in a silo. ‘Digital skills need to run like a gold thread across every single subject from Maths to Music, Geography to French from a very early age. They shouldn’t simply be seen as part of Computing or D&T, ‘ she says. ‘On a recent session we did on the environment, a parent told us her teenager raced into the kitchen saying “Mum, I’m doing a Science project in Minecraft.” 

 

But tech skills won’t be enough on their own. Philbin also thinks that the education system needs to emphasise soft skills and that both are the start of a journey of lifetime learning. For Philbin success looks like, ‘a child who is confident, learns how to get a team working well whether by leading it or working within it, understands that things don’t always work out first time but that this doesn’t mean there isn’t a potential solution, realises that the learning never stops, understands how to communicate their ideas to others.’ If you’ve got secondary school aged children TeenTech are running a series of online events to help grow STEM skills. 

 

  • Parents need to model learning behaviours. If you’ve got access to technology then sharing your skills with your children will supplement what they’re getting from the curriculum. Another thing you can do is to teach kids computational thinking, helping them chunk problems into small elements that can be put together and recreated. Darya Yegorina, CEO of edtech company CleverBooks, told me that we need to focus efforts on skills like this, also know as metaskills, which are essentially master skills which amplify other skills. 

Yegorina advises that, ‘Meta skills are the catalyst of functional skills adoption. These are more the skills of self awareness and they support new skills acquisition faster.’ Prioritisation and creativity are other examples of metaskills. 

Above all, everyone I spoke to when researching this article stressed the importance of encouraging kids to be curious and develop a love of learning. 

 

  • Breakdown stereotypes about STEM. We desperately need more people to go into these fields, and the work to do that starts today. Bilkis Miah, CEO of You Be You, an organisation that creates primary school resources focused on diversity, points out that ,’STEM subjects can be seen as ‘nerdy’ subjects for some boys and girls which may lead to them being ostracised. Girls may also experience a lack of role modelling, imposter syndrome and a feeling that STEM is more of a boy’s subject (we found that pupils as young as 5 were saying this).’ She encourages parents and teachers to seek out diverse role models in tech and praise children for showing interest in these subjects. 

 

  • We need to increase access to extracurricular activities. DfE are already promising that efforts will be made to close the attainment gap and offer more support to children. Urgent as this is, we can’t lose sight of the vital role that extracurricular activities play in children’s development of life skills. 

 

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century author Yuval Noah Harari describes the rollercoaster career journey that awaits our children. As tech adoption grows new jobs are likely to spin up as quickly as they get automated. If we can teach our kids emotional intelligence, critical thinking, problem solving and resilience then they will thrive. 

 

Neil Mathers, CEO of Children’s University Scotland, agrees. ‘Community organisations and volunteers can play a vital role in ensuring children are supported and engaged and can recognise when children experience limitations to their digital access or participation,’ he says. He feels that we need to support parents in helping their children access digital: ‘Parents who have the skills and infrastructure can support their children, but we can’t expect digitally deprived parents to do this alone.

 

  • We must support creativity. Lessons are likely to be jam packed as kids get up to speed with time missed in the classroom. Chris Thorpe, Head of Technology at CAST argues that play is really important, because, ‘Play helps us to imagine things, it helps us to make serendipitous connections and to experiment without fear of failure, and we’ll need that most of all.’ Our children will need to innovate and try new things even more than we will all have had to in our careers and play is essential to that. 

 

No-one knows what the future looks like, or what jobs our children may do which haven’t been invented yet. Tech is going to offer them lots of opportunities as well as a volatile, exciting career path. We need to think big about giving them the skills they need to be ready.


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