Preparing students for working life

November 2012

Business people walking along the office corridorFollowing the launch of the low cost Raspberry Pi, there has been significant discussion on how schools are failing students in provision of IT education.

This article examines the challenges faced by Hayley Mitchell, a recent entrant into the IT industry, and some of the difficulties experienced by Sebastien Lahtinen, co-founder of ThinkBroadband.com, in finding suitable candidates for the role in his organisation.

At the beginning of January, Hayley Mitchell joined what is a quite technically focused team at thinkbroadband.com, having previously worked in healthcare recruitment. Within a week of joining and being introduced to the infrastructure that powers the internet, Hayley was upgrading her own graphics card and was looking forward to building a server.

Having worked now with the team for a few months, Hayley reflects on the development opportunities she missed whilst in education.

Hayley’s perspective

The new job with Thinkbroadband was a huge change for me in terms of the skills required. I didn’t realise how wide-reaching and varying the IT sector was and how it can affect every part of your life. The opportunities are endless and IT is no longer about just sitting in front of a computer. This job has opened my eyes to a world of possibilities I have never thought about before and is giving me valuable experience.

Since joining, I have learnt about computer security, IP addresses and even how to convert between binary and decimal numbers. Much of this is of course specific to the company I work for, however, I have also discovered many basic skills such as HTML, the mark-up language used to make web pages, which I feel I should have had some exposure to in my time in education. Had I been given more opportunities, I may well have taken a different career path from the beginning.

Many of the web apps today make it easy to write blogs, produce videos and engage in social media without understanding how the underlying system really works. That’s great, and there is no reason why every car driver should be a qualified mechanic, but it would make sense to understand the basics of how an engine works in case you break down.

In the same way, I was never taught to build basic web pages in HTML and, when you want to do something a little bit non-standard, these types of skills are really helpful. Better IT skills mean you can not only be more productive, but also use the tools available to you in much more effective ways.

IT is often seen as a geeky option for many kids at school, but if more students were given the opportunity to experiment with technology then we might have more people coming into the IT industry from different backgrounds, or using IT to solve new problems and set up their own businesses.

I’ve found it so rewarding to be able to learn how to solve my own IT challenges, but I was never truly encouraged to do so before working in an IT company.

I didn’t do very well in GCSE IT, not because I couldn’t excel (no pun intended) in the subject, but I just wasn’t shown the potential of how this could be useful in later life. Even though I’ve been working for many years now, I still have so much new to learn.

Sebastien’s perspective

As a small technology company, we needed to make sure we found someone for a non-technical role covering a wide range of skills, who would fit in with the relaxed IT culture of jeans and t-shirts rather than suits and ties. We were surprised by the sheer volume of applications we received and it took considerable time to narrow them down to a short list.

Small businesses often don’t have the support infrastructures or processes in terms of dedicated IT departments, which means that for a technical company to bring in someone less technical can be a challenge to ensure they have the right training and support. We also often work remotely, bringing with it additional challenges.

Having helped non-technical friends working in office jobs understand some of the tools available in common office application packages, I have seen the gleam in their eyes at the new world of opportunities those skills can bring and help them to do their jobs more effectively.

The importance of tangible IT skills for young people moving into the workforce is really important. They are so integral in the world today in most office-based roles and increasingly outside of the office. Yet not enough focus is being put on basic skills, never mind developing more advanced ones. This needs to begin in schools.

IT is often seen as the domain of the geek; however, IT skills don’t necessarily mean a career in an IT company. As technology has changed how we work, IT skills should be considered as important as English and Mathematics, as its use will become more and more prevalent across all industries.

There’s a lot of bad practice around, like formatting documents in word processors - too often people replicate offline ways of making texts larger to indicate a heading, rather than tagging it as a heading. This means students often walk away without the skills needed to manage larger documents.

I remember being taught at university how to use pivot tables to analyse data, a basic, yet powerful, data analysis technique, most spreadsheet users have no idea of. Many people will manually update large numbers of sections of documents rather than learn how to automate a process. These types of skills should be considered basic requirements for students leaving secondary school.

When interviewing for this position, we were looking for people with an interest in technology and the willingness to learn new skills.

We have been very fortunate to find someone keen to learn and excited by the possibilities the new skills available can bring both for use at work and also in her personal life. As an employer, it is inspiring to be able to help develop these skills and see Hayley captivated in putting them into use.

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  • 1
    Susanna Way wrote on 30th Nov 2012

    A refreshing and optimistic item - love the fact that there are employers like Sebastian around who are looking for a keen interest and an ability to learn - and candidates like Hayley who demonstrates a recognition that there is so much more out there to learn and an appetite to do so.

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  • 2
    Bev Sawyer wrote on 6th Dec 2012

    I have just completed my first 60 credits of a BSc degree in computing & it through the Open Uni.HayleyI am pleased to say that at level one all the things you mentioned are taught, thank goodness. Bev

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