Basic digital skills and access to the internet are essential for living well in today’s world, issues of too much screen time and the like aside. People with even basic digital skills earn more money, save on household expenses, have access to better employment opportunities and can stay in touch with distant friends and family. For the last decade, digital inclusion initiatives in this country have been focused on ensuring all people have the skills, confidence, and access to technology to get online.
While we must continue to get as many people to that basic level of digital aptitude, it’s time for those of us working on digital inclusion to think bigger. We are facing a perfect storm: an increased need for advanced technology skills as digital permeates everything (and the business understanding that will be needed to take advantage of sophisticated, disruptive new digital technologies), and a growing skills shortage. Add to this a serious diversity problem and the growing understanding of the knock-on effect of unconscious bias in programming (e.g. of AI), and it’s clear we have a problem. But these challenges also present brilliant opportunities for the industry.
With this in mind, digital inclusion itself must become more inclusive; we must think bigger. I offer a new definition of digital inclusion that also acts as a mission statement in our sustainability work:
Digital inclusion means ensuring all people have basic digital skills and access to technology and the internet now, while expanding opportunity for gainful employment through more advanced digital skills attainment now and in the future.
To achieve this vision, we must start:
- Investing in the next generation of tech talent now, and not just with coding education
- Finding and training non-tech workers wherever they are now
- Transforming our industry’s culture and image so different kinds of people can see themselves in it
Investing in the next generation of tech talent now
Already many of us in the industry, including Sopra Steria, are working with schools, colleges and other organisations to supplement curricula with various STEM learning initiatives. But, as a society, we need to go further and think more broadly. Coding clubs are hot right now, and have contributed to changing perceptions of our industry for the better. However, we have fallen behind in investments in core education: a large proportion of schools report that their teachers do not feel prepared to teach using digital tools, and even computer science tutors aren’t confident when it comes to teaching coding. Furthermore, connectivity is still a problem. As of 2014, two-thirds of primary schools and half of secondary schools said they didn’t have adequate WiFi provision.
We also need to continue to reposition STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) subjects, ensuring they are part of core curriculum throughout schooling, not spinning off computer science modules as elective subjects. The level of technology education today’s students will need tomorrow is much greater than it ever has been, and so related subjects should be treated as sacred as English and Maths are.
I would argue the same is true for arts education…or at least creative education. The STEM acronym is emerging in a revised version: STEAM (A for Arts), and for good reason. As computers evolve to become more self-sufficient (i.e. more programming being undertaken by computers themselves), some coding careers will become obsolete. The more advanced jobs in this space will be for not just the cleverest programmers, but the most creative minds among them. (Recall the Albert Einstein quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge…” for a reminder that creativity has always been a part of brilliance in science). But creativity and imagination won’t just be important for the techies of the future: the promise of many of the technologies on the horizon is that we will all be able to use them for better outcomes of all kinds. We are told doctors shouldn’t fear being replaced by robots, because they will have their work enhanced by AI and big data. The same goes for lawyers, scientists, social workers, and so many other kinds of workers. We will become (even more) augmented humans, and augmented humans will only reach their potential if they know what questions to ask their computers. That takes imagination and creativity. Likewise, these skills will continue to play an outsized role in dreaming up how technology can be applied to solve current and emerging challenges, be it business challenges that lead to the creation of the next Uber, or societal challenges like solving plastic waste.
Finding and training non-tech workers wherever they are
There is still too much reliance on people finding their way to us in tech. That is, people who benefitted from the education system and recruitment pipeline that is still plagued by unconscious bias, and an industry culture that, although cooler than it used to be, is still not welcoming to all potential talented people. We can’t afford to wait for those who are in school now to join us, so we must transform our talent search and employment offer. There is much to be done – and, to be fair, a lot being done, including offering more flexible working and setting objectives for diversity in recruitment and performance management – but I see two main hurdles not getting enough attention: reliance on traditional talent pipelines (including elite universities), and stubborn insistence on non-essential skills.
Elite universities produce many talented people, to be sure, and they should be in the recruitment mix. But they shouldn’t be the only avenue, or even the most significant one. First of all, we will never get enough candidates if we only target students coming out of top universities. Second, these univiersities won’t help fix our diversity issues. People from ethnic minority backgrounds and of lower socio-economic status are severely underrpresented here. This in itself will perpetuate the lack of racial and socio-economic diversity in our sector, if we rely on these universities for our candidates too heavily. But the problem goes deeper: the pervasive homogeneity within these institutions could mean that organisations that rely on them too heavily for talent will not only have diversity problems as described above, but they will also have a lack of diversity of thought and experience.
Drawing up a job description for a recruitment advertisement is not fun, and if you can reuse one you’ve already got, you’re probably going to do that. The problem is, the one you’ve got is probably a wish list instead of a job description. It’s much easier to just list everything you can think of that your ideal candidate might be able to, than to take the time to seriously challenge yourself to identify and prioritise a few skills and qualifications that you absolutely cannot do without. (The old quote “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn’t have time to make it shorter” springs to mind). But we absolutely must start to do this. For one, we know that women are likely to rule themselves out for a position if they feel they don’t meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men will tend to apply for the role if they feel they meet a third of them. Going beyond gender, I believe we could also find untapped talent pools if we took up the practice of examining our real needs and priorities, and considering training and reskilling options. Could a construction worker become a project manager? Could an artist become a UX designer? Could a stay-at-home mum who worked in tech 10 years ago jump into a sales role? The answer is maybe, but not if we weigh down our adverts for roles with too many non-core criteria.
Being imaginative about where we’re going to find talent now and in the short-term is also crucial to preparing for any displacement that emerges from greater automation. We will have to be better at seeing skills and competences that are transferrable, and spotting potential for non-technical people to become more technical. And we have to commit to real retraining programmes. Done right, retraining should be a better option than letting people go and trying to find talent in this tight market.
Transforming our industry’s culture and image
Despite progress, our industry’s culture and image continue to be barriers to addressing the skills gap. If people don’t want to come to work in the industry because they don’t see others like themselves, or because some actors are contirbuting to a bad reputation, we will struggle to get the people we need. The transformation will take place in our workplaces and in our work with schools and colleges, with new recruitment and talent management practices and culture change initiatives, and school outreach with a focus on diversity. Again, though, we must think more creatively about the kinds of skills we want the future workforce to have. We can’t train the kids of today for jobs that will be obsolete by they time they enter the jobs market; we have to help them develop problem solving skills, creativity, critical thinking skills. If we do this, it will have a knock-on effect on our culture and image, because we won’t just be bringing in the old school geeky types from the same backgrounds.
Finally, we can do more to inspire the people we want to attract. Technology is playing a huge role in addressing some of the world’s greatest challenges, such as climate change, social isolation, and access to healthcare. I’ve seen firsthand in our work with schools and colleges how talking about technology as a force for social and environmental good captures imaginations and gets kids’ interest. People of all ages want to make a positive difference in their work, and ensuring we offer those opportunities to our workers now and in the future is the right thing to do and a good way of attracting people.
It’s a lot of work. Is it worth it?
The benefits to us in business should be clear enough: we can solve our skills shortage over time and address our diversity issues, and improving diversity brings with it its own business benefits. But this is also important on a people level: almost all jobs will require tech skills of a level higher than is required today, and the best jobs will continue to be in tech (yes, I’m biased). Enabling more people to work effectively in the most rewarding jobs could help to turn around the trend towards growing economic disparity in developed countries, and will foster stronger, fairer economic growth. It will also make those of us in the industry better at what we do: right now we are at risk of creating flawed products because we don’t have enough people from different backgrounds contributing to their creation.
So, yes, the challenge of becoming truly digitally inclusive in the terms described above is a big one. But we don’t really have a choice if our industry is going to continue to be the engine of economic growth and innovation that it has been. Let’s get to work, and more importantly, let’s get others to work with us who aren’t yet!