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I was fortunate enough to address a terrific audience of senior civil servants recently at Civil Service Live, Edinburgh. The conference provided some real food for thought and I wanted to share the points I raised during my talk which focused on the critical issue of STEM skills in Scotland.

Our society relies heavily on digital skills – more so than you might think at first. Digital skills aren’t limited to technology careers; nearly 75% of Scotland’s total workforce requires some degree of digital skill regardless of industry sector. As for the IT industry itself, there’s no denying it is a huge contributor of growth: latest official figures indicate the IT and Telecoms industry adds in excess of £4 billion of Scotland’s GVA.

It’s clear that training our workforce to work in a digital space is vital to growth and ensuring a highly skilled, international economy. And yet, thousands of vacancies in Scotland remain unfilled every year because of a skills gap.

Filling this gap is rooted in STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Given the chance, we know Scotland can be a major player on an international scale in STEM and IT. Thirty per cent of UK tech start-ups come from Scotland; Edinburgh is home to Codebase, the largest tech incubator in Europe, and to Kotikan, the mobile applications company behind Skyscanner.

Despite this, the number of young people entering the industry is dropping. There’s also a significant gender gap, with fewer and fewer women choosing to make IT a career and stay in it – particularly distressing when we consider that digital employment is forecast to grow at nearly twice the rate of other industries by 2018, so missing out on female talent means we will have difficulty filling these positions.

Encouraging students to study STEM subjects and work in the digital sector starts earlier than you might think. Children as young as five years old can learn the basics of coding through free apps that allow them to program their own interactive stories with graphical programming blocks. Duolingo is a well-known language-teaching app; it encourages the use of technology as a teaching tool. Parents and educators can use these tools alongside children to ensure they grow up with strong digital skills.

Above all, everyone interested in helping Scotland remain competitive by addressing the Digital Divide needs to work together. The government, parents, educators, the industry itself - we need to show that working in IT is more than sitting at a desk writing programming all day long. We need to break the stigma. We need to encourage our youth – of both genders – to look at STEM subjects as viable career options for the future.

Other countries have seen the benefits of promoting a digitally-led society. In Switzerland, for example, over 66% of pupils choose the apprenticeship route, receiving off-the-job training to industry defined standards at colleges; Swiss unemployment levels are the lowest in the OECD and the economy generates most of its GDP from high value sectors. Estonia has embraced digital at an incredible level: all schools use school-home communication environments; 94% of income tax declarations are made online; 99% of banking transactions are made online. As a result, recruitment agencies in the UK often go to Estonia to find candidates.

If Scotland – and any country, really – wants to remain competitive in the global economy, we must promote digital skills as a necessity for the workforce, starting with our students. The industry needs to lead by investing more significantly and earlier, providing employees with the opportunity to work while learning and consider having targets and quotas to encourage the upwards movement of women in the industry. Educators and parents need to encourage youth to consider IT and digitally-led jobs as options for their future.

Of course it is not just about entry level talent. There is also a mid level challenge. Can Scotland do more to attract individuals to relocate to Scotland at different stages in their careers? How do we support our mid level talent to take on more senior roles? What support can we offer women returners, those with disabilities, those changing careers and retraining to enter the IT industry? If we do not act swiftly we will never close the skills gap and get ahead of the game instead of playing catch up. Above all, our society needs to change its mindset to adapt to this new world. 

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