I recently presented at an event at the RSA around the role of technology in jobs, the economy and the future workforce in the UK, and although this may initially feel a little counterintuitive (and for me, potentially career limiting) I’d like to bring some of the discussion to you, highlighting in particular the general irrelevance of technology in our deliberations as to what we need to do to ensure our future workforce is equipped to help maintain and extend our position (and economy) across a broad range of industries.
Over the past few weeks, there has been much in the press about the relationship between skills, technology and job prospects, especially recently with all the discussion around the role of ICT in the tool curriculum. In all of this, overall, I grow increasingly worried that we have confused the word “skills” with the word “tools”.
Most people’s experience of technology is now more defined by their personal experience than it is by their experience at work. We no longer live in a world where people only ever see computers at a place of work or place of study and broadly speaking, technology has become a natural ingrained part of our everyday lives, just like the television, just like the 240v, 50Hz AC that comes out of the sockets in your wall. However, even despite all this, we seem predominantly transfixed on the specifics of training people to use specific tools and technologies rather than on the broader principles that make their use important and valuable. ICT continues to be a separate bolt on to both education and in how organisations use it rather than something that is naturally embedded into every aspect of our lives.
(Please understand, I get that we do not live in an society where everyone has equal opportunities and access to digital resources, but we do live in a world where increasingly, like the recent government mandate, everything is becoming “digital by default”.)
By now, we are familiar with the cliché around how we are “currently training people for jobs that don’t exist yet”, but I would argue that, although the pace of change may be slightly faster these days, that particular problem has always pretty much always been true.
My own family offers me some evidence – I am but the latest in a long line of engineers bearing the Coplin surname, my grandfather grew up in the industrial heartland of this country, working for one of the many engineering firms in the midlands as a pattern maker. My father grew up in that same environment and became an aeronautical engineer, I grew up surrounded by aeronautical and mechanical engineering insight and artefacts and became a software engineer, my son, is growing up similarly “blessed” (or cursed as his Mum may occasionally have it) and will no doubt, find his own way to re-engineer the world (although like any other six year old, his current ambition sees him working with the Police, not on the motorbikes or in the squad cars but specifically “with computers”, his own important addition to the job stereotype that makes me infinitely proud).
My grandfather went to a school without electricity, my father went to a school without calculators and I grew up in a world without personal computers and went to college in a world without the internet or the web. My son will be similarly afflicted in relation to his children (“Tell me again Dad? You didn’t even have hoverboards?”) and so it goes on.
Although the generations of Coplin engineers grew up with incredibly different tools and concepts of education, we are united by a common set of skills; almost insatiable curiosity and a desire to re-engineer and improve the world around us.
What this says to me is that the tools are broadly irrelevant. Don’t get pedantic on me, I’m not saying totally irrelevant, just that it’s more important to understand the principles that make them work and where to apply them, than it is to understand the specific workings of a given software package (or lathe for that matter).
This is really where our challenge lies – how to ensure our children and workforce are equipped with the broad principles and the aptitude and attitude to know when and where to apply them along with that sense of curiosity and wonder about the world about them.
Perhaps it was because I had just spent the best part of the past weekend with them, but my baseline for success is broadly defined by the incredible “Gov Camp” community we have here in the UK. Some 250 or so individuals from all over the country, from all parts of public sector, united by a love of technology and a desire to improve public service (or as Chris Taggart so pragmatically puts it, to “make the world a little less shit”).
What makes this community special (and for my money, an early indicator of what we can look forward to across all industries and companies in the future) is that from all of these people, only a handful (certainly less than 10) would class themselves as being from “IT”. These are individuals from the business end of government who use technology as a part of their everyday lives, and want to use it to the same extent in their professional roles. They think of technology as an enabler not an outcome. They are curious, they are confident, they overcome organisational boundaries and are guided by a civil purpose – they want to take the world apart and put it back together again in a way that it makes things better for those involved. These are the hallmarks of a creative, capable and competent workforce and the principles that are behind this curious mind-set are exactly those I think we need to infuse in our children and future workforce (of all ages). (If you want a more detailed look at what makes UK Gov Camp and the people behind it so special, you can find out what it feels like to “walk a mile in their sandals” from Steph Gray, one of the community’s incredible architects.)
For too long we have drawn a distinction between science and art, when in reality they can both be the same thing. We need to show kids (and adults alike) that, as Niko Macdonald, one of the audience members eloquently put it, “there is beauty in code” and “majesty in mathematics”. It is as much about inspiration as it is about perspiration. Unfortunately, from the discussion it becomes clear that there is a significant gap between schools and industry in helping each other understand which skills are important and what sort of careers they could lead to.
I think we can do more here, especially those of us who have children within the education system – we need to find a way of spending more time with schools to help demonstrate what careers and vocations the basic skills like maths, english and science can lead to (and that these subjects can be as creative as any art-related subject). I think a re-birth of the school computer club is one key way that we can do this without getting caught up in (or in the way of) the curriculum discussion. (HT to @MadProf and the “Monmouth Manifesto” on that one).
There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial part in our future economy, and that technology skills will be fundamentally essential for individuals to have a challenging, rewarding career but I think it’s important to highlight those careers will increasingly not be in “IT” itself. I believe it far more likely that they will be spread across the existing (in some cases eternal) and the incredible new industries that our future will offer. More importantly, the specifics of the technologies being used will vary even more significantly than over the preceding 100 years and so now, more than ever, it becomes crucial to infuse those essential principles into the mind-set of all those who are venturing into this new world of work.
Helping them understand that, as Matthew Taylor from the RSA puts it, “you don’t ‘get’ a job, you ‘create’ one” could be all it takes to get us started.
(GovCamp photo credit: David Pearson)