BCS’ Director of External Affairs, Adam Thilthorpe, recently chaired a discussion on how to bridge the skill gap between university and industry – and just what can be done to produce graduates who are ‘job ready’.

Joining Adam in the discussion were key experts from across academia and industry:

  • Nicky Danino, Academic Lead for Computer Science at UClan
  • Professor Victoria Baines, Gresham University
  • Jon O’Brien, Managing Director for consulting at Crossword Cybersecurity
  • Julia Adamson, BCS Director for Education
  • Josh Yewman, President of The Computing Society at Royal Holloway University

The round table explored many key questions including: What skills do employers need that appear to be in short supply within the graduate talent pool? What are the challenges for lecturers in delivering these skills, and what is the graduate perspective? We break down the themes and share them...

We need more honest and open communication

The discussion around transferrable skills centred heavily on communication. It is critical that we have industry professionals who can communicate highly technical information in a manner that is understood by non-technical colleagues, Jon from Crossword called this ‘recipient design’ and stated it was a ‘much sought after rarity’. The amount of specialist terms and acronyms in technology is so high and it’s essential to remember that your audience may not know what this means - critical decision makers need to fully understand what’s being communicated.

Our graduate panellist, Josh, highlighted that this is not a skill that is currently nurtured in university, and he would have found it beneficial to have received some support with this skill. There’s a misconception in the industry that you only need excellent communication skills when you take on certain roles, for example people management, but this is not the case.

Drawing talent from a wider pool

The industry requires a large and diverse pool of talent. More females are choosing a computer science degree than ever before but there are still challenges with retaining talent in the industry. Julia had evidently argued that 97% of females drop out of a computer based subject during their GCSE’s. Nicky highlighted that one of the only reasons she felt comfortable taking computing forward was because she attended an all-girls school and therefore was not outnumbered by boys in the classroom. She also noted that the women who are in the industry are often landed with being the ‘role model’ and tasked with doing lots of outreach work. In essence, this puts pressure on women to champion inclusivity because there isn’t enough of them in a demanding industry.

So how do we increase the size of the talent pool?

There was a suggestion of creating tech conversion courses, akin to the existing law conversion option. Schemes with this premise are already happening with some employers, including Crossword, where an employer will take on people who show aptitude for the transferrable skills required within the industry but have no formal experience or qualifications in tech. They then provide training on technical skills in areas such as cyber security. It was noted that schemes such as these are resource heavy and often only larger organisations can afford to run these types of programmes.

Graduates in subjects outside of computer science have been turned away from a career in cyber despite the fact there are so many skills which are applicable to tech such as decoding and frameworks, problem solving and so on. The demand for talent in the tech industry is so high, that to plug the skills gap we need to do more to recognise related skills.

Could we learn from the US honours degree system?

There was some discussion around the US system of major and minor subjects at degree level, someone might be majoring in an arts based subject but minoring in computing. This gives people some foundational skills and knowledge and could open the door to tech careers further down the line. It was recognised that the problem is that computing is a cumulative skill and takes a lot of dedicated time to learn. As an additional option it’s hard and people tend to drop it.

The panel also addressed that there are lots of non-technical roles in the industry – for example governance, risk and compliance roles do not necessarily require deep technical knowledge – there are lots of opportunities for people without technical skills. Business schools cover some of these topics but more needs to be done to raise awareness of these roles.

There continues to be misconceptions around what a career in technology looks like. As a subject in its own right, it can be said that we take computing out of all the things it’s used in. In reality, there isn’t really such a thing as ‘pure computer science’, computing is in everything and has become ubiquitous in society across every aspect of life. When choosing roles people are more likely to be led by context and human impact – the industry can do a better job of showing how computing plays a part in this.

Widening the support structure

Schools, universities and employers could support each other more in developing skills and talent.

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Students are generally at university for three or four years and in that time there is a lot of technical content to be covered. It was highlighted that educators, such as lecturers, must be supported too to support their students. Employers could also encourage candidates by delivering transferrable skills content, both whilst students are at university and within their placement and graduate programmes.

In turn, universities could do more to support schools – for example offering code clubs and also programmes centred around transferrable skills needed for tech. In addition to this, Julia, Director of Education at BCS, pointed out that a school system should emphasise transferable skills. She further explained that schools shouldn’t just focus on the purity of a subject but having well rounded, digitally literate young people with excellent communication and problem solving skills.

It was further discussed that university students during their placement year are, in some cases, earning more than their lecturers. Universities need to get the right talent in the classroom by offering more flexible options – more part-time industry and teaching positions and retired programmes, for example.

Conclusion

Many key themes were explored in the roundtable and there is a huge emphasise on transferable skills being taught in schools and universities in order for early career graduates to excel in the industry. Communication and a commitment to partnership across academic institutions will play a key role in this. There also needs to be a diverse pool of talent in the industry focusing on people from different backgrounds and on non-computing roles, such as governance and risk. The panel agreed more need to be done to raise awareness of careers within the industry – but more importantly every institution must support young people and graduates into the IT industry.