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ICT education's future is in the skills of the future

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The banks of the River Clyde, in Scotland, rang to the sounds of rivet guns before the First World War. One of the biggest concentrations of shipbuilding in the world provided jobs and a future to over 70,000 workers. This was industry on such a scale, that it is said that more than 370 ships were completed in 1913. And this was just on one river. Shipbuilding yards across Europe, from Ireland to Germany, gave work to tens of thousands of people.

But just 100 years later, if you want a ship built today, you’d be more likely to look to a place like Bangeojin, in South Korea. While some ships are still built on the Clyde, the industry doesn’t have the permanence that it once had. It isn’t a future for young people in the region.

It would be surprising to hear of a shipbuilding apprenticeship scheme being rolled-out as a flagship education policy in European countries today. Why train our children and young people with skills that are readily off-shored to more competitive countries?

A new curriculum for computing

As pupils head back to school this autumn, children in England will be switching on their computers and learning how to tell an algorithm from a Boolean value. According to former education minister, Michael Gove, “...all young people in the 21st century will need to be equally comfortable with reading, writing and programming; understanding not just how to work a computer, but how a computer works."

This new direction for IT education fits in neatly with a trend towards presenting coding as a key skill, on a par with basic literacy and numeracy. Other initiatives, such as the EU Code Week and Year of Code claim to hold the answer to a looming digital skills gap.

90% of jobs will need basic computing skills

It is an often quoted statistic, that by 2015, 90% of jobs in Europe will require basic ICT skills. Whether it is precisely accurate or not, the message it carries is true: workers need to know how to use computers, or they will fall behind. Unskilled workers risk their own careers, and they risk the competitiveness of European companies.

But even if 90% of jobs will require basic digital skills, 95% of jobs are unlikely to demand the ability to code. It may be useful for an IT professional, or perhaps even a journalist, to have an understanding of how to program a computer, but these are not skills that the average worker will ever need to have.

Think of it another way: being able to drive a car is a very useful skill. Lots of young people learn to drive. Knowing the intricacies of a carburettor or a fuel injection system is also valuable knowledge. And yet, we don’t expect the average driver to be able to reassemble their car’s engine, nor do we expect knowledge of transmission systems to signify an ability to drive safely.

Jet engines instead of ship hulls

Even though the shipbuilding yards are growing quieter, Europe is still a hotbed of engineering excellence. Companies like Rolls-Royce lead the world in jet engine technology, and Airbus is one of the globe’s top two aircraft manufacturers. Education and training is available to nurture the talent of those who want to build their careers in these modern engineering sectors.

IT education should not be very different. Everyone should have the opportunity to gain the vital skills that will help them in any job they have in the future, and the 5% that will go on to a career in the IT industry should have the options to study the more advanced stuff. It’s not all or nothing; coding and basic skills can live side-by-side.

A digital divide is dangerous

The focus on coding is responding to a skills gap. There is certainly a skills gap, and it’s essential that it be addressed. This digital divide is between the skills employers need, and the skills workers can offer. Earlier this year, the British Computer Society looked into what employers expect from their workforce. 81% of employers required that their workforce had digital skills. Despite this widespread demand, only 52% of employers believed that their workforce had the necessary digital skills to meet future challenges. Other research, by the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, found that just 25% of people surveyed had proficiency in word processing.

The problem is clear, and the solution is obvious too. Instead of trying to get all school kids coding, we should be giving all school kids basic digital skills that will support them when they enter the workforce.

This is already happening in some places. In Austria, schools that participate in the digi.komp8 initiative are able to offer ECDL modules to their students. Not only does this build their skills with a proven course, but the students also get the benefit of an internationally recognised qualification.

Maybe we should take a moment to ask what skills people will need in the future. The list might be long, but basic digital proficiency is sure to be on there.