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We Do Need Some Education

17th January 2013

Internet for Business is a leading Internet Service Provider and provides ICT infrastructure for businesses across the UK. The company's CEO, Graeme Gordon, reveals how the skills shortage is not exclusive to the oil and gas industry and shares his views on why we urgently need an alternative approach to education, one which teaches independent, inquisitive thinking and inspires a new generation of technologists.

An industry which demands high levels of skills and expertise; is critical to any business operation; is a massive economic enabler and offers well above average remuneration and opportunities on a global basis is suffering a huge skills shortage. Sound familiar? Would you be surprised if it was not Oil & Gas (sorry energy) but the ICT industry I was talking about and that these shortages are here in Scotland? Directly the Scottish ICT industry employs around 70,000, add in the teams running the ICT departments within companies this number rises to 105,000. The sector is growing at 4 times the Scottish average, in fact the forecasts are that 40,000 new professionals will be needed within the industry in the next 5 years. This stacks well with the energy sector's forecast of 120,000 new jobs in the next 10 years. So why the shortage?

Surely it's a no brainer - getting yourself involved when the use, need and demand for IT is only going to grow - in a similar way that the demand for new, qualified engineers able to explore and produce raw energy materials from more difficult to reach locations is growing yet nearly 40%+ of the skilled workforce is within 15 years of retiring. The facts are that only around 1,500 students are graduating in computing related subjects each year in Scotland with around 7,000 jobs being created. May I suggest that it is not this end of the wire, or fibre or pipeline that is the problem? IT, like any other within STEM, is viewed as being not sexy. Never has been and, unless we change how the process of educating to work is viewed, never will be.

So we, as an industry and with education need to make ourselves more enthralling as a career choice, perhaps before those choices are made. To me things are actually getting worse before they get better as we are still teaching our kids in school IT or ICT when the vast majority of ten year olds are more nimble and agile around a computer or technology environment than a 30 year old teacher. The average mean age of a primary and secondary teacher in Scotland is 42, Google it. Which means when they were of a similar age to the kids they are teaching the technology was the Sony Walkman (1979) CD's and the ZX Spectrum (1982) and Apple was dominant in the personal computer market, reaching $1bn in computer sales in 1982. No Google though. If you are a teacher please don't take this as a comment on your teaching ability in the same way that it is not a comment on your ability to teach us about King Harold just because you were not there in 1066.

But I do think it can be that simple with technology, if you don't understand how it works or have been through that process then you cannot teach the next generation simply because you are a user, the same as they are. Teaching anything to a student's full potential should be inspiring. Learning a new language really becomes pertinent when you get to chance to use it and make a difference to your immediate self and those around you. Being shown how to use the subject(s) you are being taught to problem solve, on and off the paper, will make you look at the world and the opportunities it can offer you in a bigger way. And that's my problem.

As a generation of push button, voice controlled, motion gesture users we have lost the ability to inspire children about the mechanics behind so many things. The teachers who understand the stuff that makes other stuff work are usually viewed as a novelty and not as the mainstream, certainly in IT. Showing our kids to use an office suite of software tools gears them up to work in an office. Nothing wrong with this but that's not what the economy needs. Our industry is screaming out for talent who want to make a difference. We are looking for school leavers and graduates that have the relevant skills and attitude and who can come in to our businesses and ask, what do you think? Because that means that they have applied themselves with thought and viewed an outcome. This attitude can only be ignited in primary, fuelled throughout secondary and set alight in further education by applying the relevant teaching methods.

Stop thinking ICT and start living Digital, this is the world we live in and the world that the kids in education at all levels right now have known since .[dot].

Don't show our kids how to use PowerPoint, they will know how to do this already or will pick it up in 30 minutes of powering up the PC in the ICT lab, be assured it will look better to them on their own device whatever shape, colour or brand it happens to be.

Do give them an iPad, or digital camera, or PC or whatever and ask them create and edit a stop motion movie about their away day on the beach or school project. Then let them upload it to YouTube, password protect it and then share it with their friends and parents or other schools and take on board tips hints and feedback and improve.

Show them what sits behind the button or an icon and the complexity of what happens after that simple action of pushing or waving or speaking. Then let them alter the code so that something different happens and so that they can see they made that difference.

Ensure that FE students actually understand what the task is and not just the grade needed to pass the course.

Get industry involved to help out in the same way as when I was a kid - a mannie from Shell or BP or somewhere like that came in to my secondary maths class (he was mates with my teacher) with a great big model of an oil rig and then proceeded to take it apart and then got us to put it back together. While we did this he explained the interactions between each section and how without it, and the experts who had designed and were maintaining that part, the whole process would fail.

Industry wants to help right at the start of the pipeline as the output from the educational system right now is not enough in quality and quantity. Which is fine, but fine is the worst four letter F word I know as it is just on the good side of underperforming.

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