Is the tech sector too cool for school? How to close the data science skills gap

06 Nov 2019
First published on dataiq.co.uk

Ever since the tech scene in London began to boom, there’s been an equally thriving industry in think pieces lamenting the skills gap and a lack of diversity. This is not to be dismissive of the actions being taken. A lot of good work has been done to highlight how these two interconnected issues damage the sector and society. A huge amount of energy and effort is going into STEM education.

However, in Old Street, the heart of the tech sector, our only local secondary school struggles to get enough work experience places for its students. We know encounters with employers make a dramatic difference to young people’s education and ability to secure future employment. Indeed, research from the Education and Employer’s Taskforce showed four or more encounters during their education made them 86% less likely to be NEET (not in education, employment or training). The question is, what more can be done?

While progress is being made across the country, as evidenced in the State of the Nation, I’m not convinced we in the tech sector are really pulling our weight. Many of the roles in our sector did not exist ten or even five years’ ago. They are not roles people encounter in their day-to-day life.

How do we expect young people to understand them or know what they need to do to get into them? How do we expect teachers – who have predominantly gone from school to university back to school and have never known our sector – to inspire, engage and excite young people about it?

The solution does not need to be overly complex and expensive. It can be simple and you can start today.

Particularly when we are not building the strong links with schools which many other businesses have been doing for years. We fundamentally need to work harder as a sector and I’m not convinced we are working hard enough. The solution does not need to be overly complex and expensive. It can be simple and you can start today. We did it by going back to basics – work experience.

It didn’t take a round of behavioural segmentation for us to decide that simply running talks on the nuances of Bayesian statistics to a 15-year-old would not propel them towards a new career path. As with many things, it’s best to learn by doing. This meant taking students into our office and showing them the practical reality of data science. So, yes, work experience.

However, many work experience programmes are still nothing more than glorified paper-filling exercises, doing little to benefit anyone involved. We wanted to construct a real programme that would involve actual work, even engagement with clients. Like any good data science firm, we would measure the results and give the students deliverables.

The people tech companies want to reach are currently in the school next door

The school on our doorstep’s catchment area ranks highly for ethnic diversity and reaches a high proportion of students from lower income families. In short, the people tech companies want to reach are currently in the school next door and yet they aren’t speaking to them. We also wanted to work with schools on the outskirts of London who have even less access to business.
We have one student in every week of the school year working on real-life client projects as part of his studies – he was finding purely academic study challenging and a more practical approach to his studies has been translated into his exam results. We had multiple students coming through our doors over the summer.

I won’t go into the details of the programme itself, however, the result was as you would hope very positive. Not only did the students take to the work like ducks to water, a few of them are now actually selecting subjects in preparation for a career in data science or development. Most gratifyingly, my team that worked with them genuinely enjoyed the experience – it wasn’t an inconvenience or time drain, they saw it as one of the most enjoyable elements of their job and learnt new skills as a result. They are now mentoring some of the students and want to know when the next lot are coming.

How can the teachers scope new courses when they (mostly) haven’t been in the world of work?

The second, and arguably most important thing we did was think about how we educate the educators. Our teachers face ever more demands with less funding and yet the energy and enthusiasm with which they every day try to prepare our country’s future workforce is amazing.
They are now scoping what the new T-Level courses can look like in their schools which need to have tangible work experience as part of the course. How can they do that when they (mostly) haven’t been in the world of work?

So, we also trialled teacher work experience, exposing them to our working environment, sharing the skills we need and the gaps we see, showing what we do on a day-to-day basis on clients and what different roles mean. Michelle, one of the teachers, was so committed she came in during her holidays as she couldn’t miss time from teaching during term. By helping her understand, she can reach far more pupils than we ever can as a small business. We want to create a ripple effect.

Retelling this story isn’t meant to be an exercise in trumpet blowing – I’m not for one moment saying this programme has made any kind of dent in the diversity and skills gap. What it does showcase is that it isn’t that hard to start somewhere, no matter what size you are. Educating both teachers and students on all the opportunities there are and how it all works in practice can make a real difference to the subjects and then careers people choose. Crucially, it also benefited our staff.

It has also prepared the ground for us to expand the programme. We’re well on our way to creating a Data Academy. Students will work a curriculum that mixes education and training, gaining credits based on the different milestones they achieve. All of this is taking place in partnerships with schools and Universities. We will take on 15 students next year (which in proportion is 20-plus % of our workforce).

If these initiatives were adopted across the tech scene by start-ups big and small, imagine the innovative solutions these companies would come up with. Picture how they could work together. Partnering with schools, local authorities, charities and each other to create hundreds, if not thousands of different ways to engage and educate students. It is up to everyone to play their part, get in the ring and fight for these young people to choose us as a future sector.
Our door will always be open to other businesses that want to collaborate on these projects – we’ll happily share our knowledge and networks. I know it can seem daunting. As the author Robert Collier said, “success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day-in and day-out.”

by Natalie Cramp, Profusion CEO

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  1. Mustapha Omale says:

    Nice article.. work experience is indeed very important to us Data Science students.

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