Belfast Telegraph

Why it's essential for us to close our digital skills gap


Traditional education has concentrated on students learning to pass exams
Traditional education has concentrated on students learning to pass exams

By Diane Morrow, co-founder, mTech Academy

When the CBI released the results of a survey this month which showed two thirds of leading companies across the UK are struggling to fill digital roles, unfortunately it did not surprise me.

It is not uncommon to hear people talk about the Future of Work and note with amazement that the jobs our children will do in the future may not even exist yet.

But a debate that has also started to emerge is that of the short-term need that many of our major employers have for people with the right skills and understanding of current technologies, to ensure they remain competitive.

While this is an issue across the UK and Ireland, here in Northern Ireland we know from talking to companies that they are also experiencing this "digital skills gap". With demand set to skyrocket for tech-savvy talent, there's a real possibility the problem will both limit young people's ability to access new jobs and harm Northern Ireland's competitiveness and its ability to create or attract these jobs in the first place.

Through my previous work in education and my co-founder Michael O'Hara's experience in the tech sector, we realised there was a gap in the Northern Ireland education system, similar to that facing many other countries. For decades, traditional educational systems have placed a premium on students learning to pass exams, rather than developing the real-world skills they will need to thrive in the digital world.

At the same time, we saw that shifts in technology are creating a new industrial revolution, one that today's students are not currently well-equipped to compete in. It's clear that new technologies are transforming the way we live and work. But it is happening at such a pace that our education system is struggling to keep up, so we have a misalignment between the skills employers need and the skills young people have.

I have seen first-hand how exposure to cutting-edge technologies and interaction with professionals from a variety of industries can positively influence students in their education and career choices. So, we were determined to inject practical, problem-based learning into the school experience for students across Northern Ireland.

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Working with partner organisations in industry which rely on a strong talent pipeline, including BT, Dawson Andrews, Grant Thornton, Instil, Novosco and PwC, we believed we could play a role in transforming the educational system in Northern Ireland.

Following the success of a pilot programme with 11 students in February 2018 and after consultation with educators and industry stakeholders in Northern Ireland, we launched mTech.Academy. The mTech.Academy programme was conceived to provide world-class experiential learning for students and to support teachers with continuing professional development - with the end goal of preparing for the new world of work.

Over the 2018/19 school year, we have worked with 300 students and 70 middle leaders, careers leaders and head teachers from 10 schools across Northern Ireland. It's been an amazing experience and quite unique - we have had strong engagement at all levels in the schools. The willingness to try a new approach is clearly there among forward thinking educators.

Through mTech.Academy, students have developed the real-world skills that employers will be seeking; they developed their digital skills, utilising cloud-based collaboration tools, developing presentations, conducting online research and planning projects, while also building soft skills, particularly the 'Four Cs' - critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

It is critical that we invest in the initiatives and programmes that will give our students the best foundation for future success.

But it is absolutely essential that we develop these policies and programmes at scale to raise the capabilities of our current and future workforce. The continued socio-economic growth of Northern Ireland depends on having a highly skilled workforce that will lead across a range of sectors.

We are of course proud of the work that we have collectively undertaken in mTech.Academy in its first year and gratified by the response from students, parents, teachers and industry.

We started out with 10 schools in mTech.Academy in our first year, but our long-term vision is much more audacious - to bring experiential learning to every student in Northern Ireland.

Transforming the education system is a significant challenge and it's not something that can be done in isolation.

We all need to work together, across the public and private sector, to make this a priority. It is a big task, but the rewards of getting it right could be transformational for Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph