On Halloween, a shocking article was posted on the BBC reporting that a tech company in Wales is offering salaries of £100k for software engineers; there are simply not enough skilled people about. Tweeting my thoughts, I wondered out loud whether the same company is contributing to their local schools and colleges, to encourage their future workforce to learn the skills their company needs.
In my career I have been sat on a wobbly bridge between businesses and education. On one side, I see managers crying out for young people to be more this, less that. On the other side, I see schools wishing they could enable their students to be ready for the future, but don’t always have the skills and resources to do so. As the winds of change blow stronger, I cling onto this bridge to see if there are any ways in which we could make these two sides a little closer together, to support each other in our aims.
I currently work on the Take Your Place project, through the University of Suffolk. As a Higher Education Champion, I sit within secondary schools in Haverhill, Sudbury and Bury St Edmunds, putting on activities and running initiatives to encourage targeted students (those identified by the Office for Students as living in postcodes where participation to Higher Education is lower than expected) to take their education further. There are 35 Higher Education Champions placed in schools across Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
The students I work with are exceptional. No matter the challenge thrown at them through funded activities – whether it’s to remove the eyes from a dead pig’s head (in a STEM themed event!), to build a video game from scratch, or to spend two nights away from home staying at a university – they give it their all, every time. If these students had the chance, I am sure some of them would be amazing software developers, and others would be amazing UX designers, project managers and ethical hackers.
The world of tech is keen to diversify – but often that means focusing on getting more women into STEM roles. As a woman who has previously worked in world of video games and experienced first hand the sexism and general unpleasantness that women in these fields can face, I am pleased to see how much effort large companies are making to encourage girls into STEM, and make their own workplaces more female-friendly.
However, diversity in tech isn’t just about getting women into STEM. It’s about making sure every person – regardless of sex, ethnicity, age and background are able to take a role in a company if they have the right skills. Diversity brings different life experiences, different ways of thinking, which in turn helps a business achieve their goals better. If companies are struggling to recruit the right people, they need to make sure that the right skills are accessible to a diverse range of people. That students not fortunate enough to live near to big tech companies can still have the opportunity to meet someone they identify with doing a job of the future. After all, you cannot be what you cannot see. If more people felt welcome in the world of tech, then naturally the world of tech would be much better populated.
In my role, I make sure students are aware that Higher Education is accessible to them; that student loans are not as scary as the media makes them out to be, that there are exciting and relevant courses for them to take up. However, students want to see the bigger picture. One year 10 asked me last week “why would I put all that time, money and effort into university if it’s just going to give me a bit more education?” He couldn’t see where Higher Education could lead him.
Young people want value for money (and effort) in this world of instant gratification. It’s hard for Further and Higher Education to increase participation in their courses without the companies who would like to hire their graduates being proactive about engaging with the students as well.
We can’t sell the journey if the goal cannot be seen.
Widening Participation (WP) to Higher Education is a growing field, and I love nothing more than connecting with other WP professionals to share research and ideas. I think the thing that’s missing is Widening Participation to Future Careers. If the tech company in Wales spent some of that £100k putting someone similar to me in a school – as a Future Skills Champion, then I think it’s very likely that they would be able to hire enough skilled people from all backgrounds to fit their needs.
Guest blog contributor – Charlotte Steggall
Higher Education Champion
Network for East Anglian Collaborative Outreach (neaco)