To be happy, healthy and successful contributors to society, tomorrow’s workers will need a rich array of digital skills. Victoria Temple, Press and Community Engagement officer for the National Centre for Computing Education explores how schools, parents and industry are working together to inspire young people into acquiring STEM skills and knowledge.

The world of work is changing rapidly. The nine-to-five, in some industries, is a thing of the past and the office’s gravitational pull has come to an end. Suddenly, teams are distributed and distinctly digital.

It’s against this backdrop that employers are predicting shortages of skills. But which skills and knowledge will be in shortest supply and how can education, the employment market and employers work together to deliver the computing skills the economy needs to thrive in the future?

A recent panel discussion hosted by the National Centre for Computing Education talked through these topics and more. The Digital Skills and the Future of Work video is available online.

The speakers were:

  • Abigail Gilbert, Principal Researcher at the Institute for the Future of Work
  • Chris Hillidge, Director of STEM, The Challenge Academy Trust
  • Mavis Machirori, Senior Researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute
  • Prof Simon Peyton Jones, Chair of the National Centre for Computing Education, and Chair and co-founder of Computing at School 

Setting the scene, Peyton Jones says: ‘The future of digital skills - it’s a big subject. It’s difficult to make predictions, especially about the future - said the famous Danish parliamentarian [Karl Kristian Steincke]. Nobody really knows what the future of work is going to be, especially as it has all been upended by COVID.’

There are however some certainties, he observes: ‘It’s going to involve interaction with a lot of data... The future will be data rich, massively connected and pervasively digital.’

So, how do we prepare children for that world - how do we set about creating tomorrow’s workers in our schools? Peyton Jones believes its not the job of education to produce ‘oven ready’ employees. Rather, it is education’s job to equip the next generation with the skills and the knowledge they need to survive and thrive through successive waves of technology.

‘But, things are moving so fast it is hard to know what those skills and knowledge will be and just how should education evolve? What education pathways - both academic and vocational - do we need?’ Peyton Jones asks. ‘And, how should employers engage with education in a constructive and thoughtful way rather than merely consuming educations products?’

Does automation make work better?

‘We rely on technology to improve technology,’ says Abigail Gilbert, Principal Researcher at the Institute for the Future of Work. ‘But, is it guaranteed that [automation] will improve jobs?’

‘Technology,’ she says, ‘has huge potential to make all of our lives richer - if we design and deploy it in the right fashion. But, this isn’t inevitable for work. We need to be conscious of designing work so it improves the lived experience. We need to use technology to serve that end.’

As an organisation, the IFOW looked closely at this question - particularly in the area of how jobs are advertised, people are hired and how talent is managed.

During the pandemic, the use of AI based hiring systems has increased, she explains. Along with COVID driving people out of offices and into distributed teams, the financial business case for these systems has strengthened, along with a rise in their acceptability.

Beyond hiring, IFOW also explored algorithmic management tools - tools that existed previously for managing gigging workers and which are now finding their place in more conventional working environments. Specifically, the IFOW - and it’s report called the Amazonian Era - looked closely at connected worker platforms.

These are a general purpose technologies that help to co-ordinate workers in a workplace. ‘Unlike a lot of us who work from home with Microsoft Office... desk based workers... For workers that move around there has been an explosion in products that help to convene, co-ordinate and digitally mediate the work that they do.’

Summing up the IFOW’s finding, Gilbert says: ‘What we learned is that there’s a common process of work transformation when these systems are introduced... It has three stages which we called the human data cycle.’

There are three key stages in the process:

  • Representation: What is recognised as work narrows to be defined and becomes ‘what can be see by data gathering technologies?’
  • Standard setting: For a desk based worker this might be the number of emails or for a shop based worker, the number of items scanned across a till. Essentially data that can be used to assess performance. In an AI and algorithmic driven working world, this can lead to an intensification of work.
  • Intervention and behaviour change: How a system manages a human’s workload. This might be through social nudges or rewarding the highest performing workers with more working hours.

Who can’t be what you can’t see

Businesses are acutely aware that their future success will be founded on tomorrow’s workers - people who will need a rich set of digital and creative skills. As such, employers are working with schools to inspire and equip young people with IT and media skills.

Rather than being drab chalk and talk sessions, Chris Hillidge, Director of STEM, The Challenge Academy Trust, details projects where local employers bring real world problems into the class room and, working with pupils and teachers, create marketable solutions to those challenges.

Education and schools don’t exist, Hillidge says, to produce finished workers. ‘We often get criticised by the business community for not turning out students with certain skills. We’re trying to develop those creative skills... To develop team working and communication. The idea that a student with a good idea, who can be agile in how they make it, who can influence other people, they can create a successful business... That’s how we set up children for the future and for a valuable and successful career.’

As evidence, he points to work done in Warrington’s Fab Lab - a maker space - where Bentley worked with local children to design, proto-type, test and finally market a small electric car.

Elsewhere, Fab Lab worked in the same collaborative way with industry plus further and higher education on designing and building COVID respirators.

Along with being an exemplar of tech for good, this rich and focused collaboration between education and industry is providing young people with inspirational views across many different STEM career pathways.

‘They have professionals working in schools for two hours every week, with groups of kids - on real world projects,’ says Hillidge. ‘And the most powerful part are the conversations that take place informally between, say, a software engineer and the teacher or the engineer and the student. Those conversations are really changing hearts and minds.’

Participation, inclusion and breaking down barriers

Mavis Machirori, Senior Researcher at the Ada Lovelace Institute, explored the grand scale challenges and opportunities that digital inclusion presents.

Digital skills are the keys to unlocking prosperity and security. Access to digital technology - and an understanding of how to use it - also promotes wellbeing and health. This point is evidenced most vividly by the NHS’ COVID-19 tracing app. The comparatively well off and technically literate can benefit from the app’s protection.

Poorer people may not have a phone capable of using it. And as poverty and low levels of digital literacy often travel hand-in-hand, people from less well off backgrounds may not have the technical understanding to install the app, turn on Bluetooth and navigate its interface.

Machirori points to employment as a gatekeeper to digital skills. For the fortunate who have good jobs that are designed in the right fashion, to use Abigail Gilbert’s term, work can help people discover and develop digital skills. Precarious employment, particularly zero hours contracts, can have the opposite effect. In those sorts of working arrangements, employers are unlikely to invest in training and helping people develop skills.

‘The downstream effect is, if you don’t have the digital skills, you can’t support your children to develop their skills,’ Machirori says.

‘At Ada Lovelace we’re interested in making sure the digital tech and data driven systems work for everyone in society,’ she continues. ‘That means, for us, to understand what that society is and why people aren’t able to participate.’

Summing up her work, she says: ‘This is about digital skills as part of a larger social understanding. And thinking about technology and what we are trying to achieve when we think about digital skills... Think about the necessary societal infrastructures that are needed beyond technology itself.’