Natalie Cramp, CEO of data science company Profusion, discusses how businesses can close the tech skills gap by working closer with schools

Girls in techIt seems that ever since the tech sector was born in the UK there has been a corresponding skills gap.

A cursory Google of ‘skills gap stats’ will get you a range of figures, some that seem to reveal that it has grown rapidly in the past few years, others saying it is beginning to close. There is, however, consensus that A) it exists and B) tech is characterised by an underrepresentation of women, minorities and underprivileged groups. There is also general agreement that too few people are doing STEM subjects in the UK for homegrown talent to close the gap any time soon. It doesn’t take a data scientist using some Bayesian Statistics to tell you that closing the diversity gap will go a long way to finally closing the gap.

But how to get more people into STEM? At this point the consensus breaks down. There are plenty of theories out there as to why teenage girls in particular do not seem to be attracted to STEM subjects or future careers in tech. My personal view, which is founded on a career that has spent a lot of time working with schools and public bodies, is that there is a knowledge and engagement deficit. Students aged 13-15 are often not given enough real-world experience of what a career in tech practically involves. Nor, do they get enough detailed information on the plethora of different roles there are in tech and the subjects they will need to pursue them. Put another way – there is not enough inspiring going on.

This inspiration and information can’t just come from the schools themselves. Teachers are under enough pressure and it is unreasonable to expect them to become tech experts overnight. Support needs to come from tech businesses in the form of partnerships with schools to share expertise and practical work experience and internship programmes. This is not a revolutionary position. Recently, The Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) released a report showcasing how businesses are increasingly working with schools throughout the country. Eighty per cent of young people are now benefiting from meeting employers every year and two thirds (66%) are gaining from work experience. Engagement is soaring, in the summer of 2018 1.2 million students had never met or worked at a business, the figure is now 700,000. Granted, work still to do, but undoubtedly great news.

So, engagement is happening. The problem? It’s not happening enough via the tech sector. Startups aren’t working or partnering with schools to anywhere near the extent that is required. Again, a number of factors will be at play. I know from working in London’s startup community that a lot of founders simply don’t believe they have the resources to offer meaningful work experience programmes. Others haven’t considered it as an option because they do not believe it’s their job or they have been so focused on scaling their company it hasn’t been close to their radar.

This is obviously a big problem. While engagement from accountancy, legal or consultancy firms is great, you could make an argument that most students have at least a basic understanding of what these careers could entail. Tech, on the hand, covers a huge multitude of sins across every industry vertical. However, in popular media it’s largely portrayed as coding or development work undertaken by 20-something guys in hoodies for a Silicon Valley-based consumer app. Put simply, tech needs to engage and educate students to a much greater extent than pretty much every other business sector.

How do we change this dynamic? The most important factor is instilling a new mentality among startups. We need to beat the drum for the wider benefits of this approach and dispel myths. For example, partnering with a school to provide talks for students, work experience, information or even internships does not take an inordinate amount of time. It is also not a one-way street. We know from our school partnership at Profusion that our staff got a lot of value from working with students. It helped them become better communicators and teachers, made them look at the work they do from a completely different perspective, and provided a new way for them to get joy from their working day. If you want to take a purely utilitarian view (as many startups do), closing the skills gap through this type of engagement is in everyone’s interest. Without action recruitment costs will continue to rise; a lack of plurality of views and backgrounds is already hampering some tech subsectors – particularly AI; and a greater wealth of talent drives innovation.

Creating these engagement programmes does not require seismic effort from the tech sector. All it requires is every startup doing their part. There are hundreds of schools, and thousands of startups in London alone. The tech capital of the UK is in the Borough of Hackney which also happens to be home to some of the most diverse and deprived schools in the UK. The people the tech community need to reach the most are on their doorstep. Reaching out to these schools and offering any kind of support will make a big difference not only to your business, but to the tech industry, and most critically, to the lives of thousands of students. If any business would like to see our partnership programme with local schools, we would be more than happy to share it.

Natalie Cramp HeadshotAbout the author

Natalie is a digital marketing and start up operations expert. She has more than a decade of experience leading private, public and third sector organisations through significant periods of innovation and change. This includes creating and scaling tech solutions for government organisations and developing the digital capability of third sector organisations.

Currently, Natalie is the CEO of data science consultancy Profusion. At Profusion she leads a team of 60 consultants, data scientists, data architects, developers and digital marketing experts. Natalie is responsible for Profusion’s strategic direction, expansion of its product offering and the growth of its blue-chip client base.