Address social mobility crisis to close UK tech skills gap
Social mobility in the UK is among the lowest in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
A recent study showed that a person’s economic position is more closely correlated with their parents’ than in almost any other country.
Over the last 10 years, the national concern around this has appropriately spiralled. Fundamental social divides in the country are becoming more visible and the recognition of the challenge has increased. Different recommendations emerge almost weekly – from banning private education to overhauling recruitment practices.
However, there seems to be one mechanism that is already underway, led by our schools, colleges and employers, which is having an impact now in our most deprived communities.
That mechanism is employer engagement in our education system – and this is especially important when it comes to tech.
We have known for several years that young people who have multiple engagements with employers while in education have higher earnings and more stable employment than those who do not. This engagement broadens horizons, raises aspirations and fundamentally transforms a child’s sense of what they want to and can achieve.
What is new is that it’s now underway at pace – and particularly in our most disadvantaged communities.
The reason this is striking is that most education measures (attainment, attendance) are negatively correlated with disadvantage. The more disadvantaged an area, the poorer its performance on these indicators, entrenching social immobility.
So why is this particular indicator suddenly performing well in more disadvantaged regions?
Part of the answer is investment. These areas have been a focus for careers education investment over the last four years. The organisation I run, the Careers & Enterprise Company, has prioritised these areas and provided them with additional funding.
However, investment is only part of the story. The scale is modest – a few thousand pounds per school or college at most.
The real impact is made by the extraordinary schools and colleges leading this work and the volunteers from the world of employment who devote their time.
In the last few years, thousands of employers have committed to supporting young people in this way, running projects and competitions in schools and colleges or taking young people onsite for work experience or shadowing. Two million young people are now meeting employers regularly. And employers in disadvantaged communities are seizing the agenda with real vigour.
For example – in Tees Valley the 60 local schools and colleges are now supported by over 600 local businesses providing this sort of opportunity. In Blackpool, 90 per cent of young people are now meeting an employer at least once a year.
The reason schools, colleges and employers invest – they know it matters. They know young people from these areas won’t trip into easy jobs. They know they don’t have the personal networks to realise what is possible and that if they aren’t supported in this way, their life chances will be different. They also need to be taught the tech skills demanded by all modern employers.
And so individuals are making the personal investment of hundreds of thousands of hours to inspire and engage young people in their communities. Tech companies up and down the country are also seeking to help train youngsters for deeper tech careers as the skills gap widens.
While policymakers debate how to improve social mobility, our employers, schools and colleges are quietly getting on with helping to solve at least a part of the problem. It’s crucial we continue to support them in doing this.
Harris is also chair of the Makers, UK’s leading software bootcamp, which champions diversity in digital training