Addressing the Digital Skills Gap: Publicly-Funded Startups?

I was at a digital skills round-table event yesterday, here in Brighton & Hove, discussing how tech SMEs can influence a city training strategy. The attendees ranged from local practitioners and employers, to training providers, local colleges and representatives of various local organisations and statutory bodies. It was a very interesting debate, with much food for thought. I had an idea…

But first some background.

Many of the issues discussed were, of course, not new – the gap between the skills needed by industry and those being taught in formal education; the lack of industry-readiness and work-life (soft) skills amongst young people; the challenges of keeping a three-year degree course up-to-date when industry and technology move so fast; the perceived poor quality of training provision and recruitment services; low awareness of and lack of access to information; no clear ownership of the skills agenda; etc etc.

Many of the solutions are inevitably full of paradoxes.

On the one hand, success in the digital industries – and indeed in the wider knowledge economy in general – requires a certain level of critical thinking, problem-solving, academic rigour, and ongoing life-long learning capability. The sort of skills one would usually acquire from a good university degree, if not a master’s degree. Yet increasingly, university is being seen – from an industry perspective – as a poor choice. It is not producing the calibre of graduates we need. And with the level of debt now associated with it, more and more are questioning its value.

Digital-sector employers are now increasingly recruiting from school, at age 16 or 18. Certainly at that age, many kids won’t have the level of critical thinking, or experience, or work skills, ultimately required – but the raw material is there and the rest can be taught. And why wait for graduates if they’re still not going to have those skills?

Apprenticeships, when done properly, are viewed as a good way to ‘train up’ that raw material after school, although there is scope to refine and improve the process and the curricula – current centralised government frameworks are not viewed positively, with industry largely getting on and sorting out its own programmes instead.

But apprenticeships are all too often misused, a way to get cheap labour, subsidised by the government, with little real benefit to the apprentice.

As it did twelve or so years ago, when I chaired a Skills Summit hosted by the then Association of New Media Freelancers that I helped to found, the problem remains how to create, find and nurture talented young people who have both the practical (design, development) skills, the general work-life soft skills, the pro-active entrepreneurial mindset, at least a modicum of real-world experience, and the ability to demonstrate all that. (That’s what should be coming out of universities, of course, but by and large it seems it isn’t).

There aren’t any easy solutions (and I could probably write at length about possible ones – perhaps something for another article).

Long-term, I would argue that systemic change is needed in our approach to education, from primary school level onwards. My own view is that we need to put product design at the heart of the curriculum and thoroughly embed Design Thinking throughout. We need to nurture a generation of polymaths.

Short-term, training seems to be viewed (wrongly?) as the answer. There are myriad courses out there. But the problem is that training in specific skills – especially those relating to particular software packages, tools, or technologies – without the underlying enduring skills, the fundamental principles, the critical thinking, the experience to know how to put it all together, still isn’t going to create the calibre of people the industry needs.

I would even argue that – with perhaps a few very specialist exceptions – if you need to go on a training course to learn a piece of software (or any other short-term transient skill), then your underlying foundation skills are lacking – you haven’t learnt how to learn sufficiently well. Training in more long-term enduring skills – things like business, management, leadership, design principles etc – is perhaps a different matter, so long as the courses are of sufficient quality, although even then there’s always the argument that experience and practice are more useful…

No easy or obvious solutions.

But I did have an idea. I haven’t fully thought this through yet, and I’m sure it would throw up plenty of challenges, so I’m just putting it out there in the raw – see what you think.

I was thinking about the way many of today’s most established musicians and bands basically spent their early years living on the dole (unemployment benefit) in cheap bedsits, spending their days playing their music, writing songs, rehearsing… (Ok I’m generalising and probably exaggerating but you get the idea I hope). Many of course eventually got ‘proper’ jobs and gave up the music; a few went on to become megastars.

Nowadays of course that sort of thing is very much frowned upon, and clamped down on. Successive governments have made it as difficult as possible to do that, to have that time of creative freedom, of exploration, of practice. Such people are viewed as scroungers, good-for-nothings, layabouts. And of course some no doubt are! But I wonder, have we lost something as a result – some vital part of personal development, of creative endeavour, of intangible social and cultural benefit, the sort of thing that actually helps to create the kind of people the digital industry and wider knowledge economy needs? The modern equivalent after all is kids in their bedrooms or bedsits, teaching themselves to code and design, writing apps, working up a portfolio…

So, how about this.

What if, as an alternative to university degrees and formal in-work apprenticeships, we funded young people to spend a year being entrepreneurs, creating and running a startup?

It would be expensive of course. Aside from giving them a living wage, there would need to be support infrastructure – premises and facilities (publicly-funded incubators and co-working spaces, perhaps?), ongoing business advice and support, mentoring and coaching, and so on.

There would need to be structures to help those without an idea hone in on something – in itself a valuable learning exercise. The UN’s Global Goals might be a good starting point, and the Large Scale Enquiry model being implemented at Garden International School could perhaps provide a template for drilling down towards an actionable idea (I say this having recently mentored 9-14 year-olds at this year’s GIS Enquiry Week, and seen first-hand the effect this approach has on the kids, in terms of creativity, skills and attitudes). The Social Innovation Camp model might help to refine, test and implement solutions.

There would also need to be processes for putting together teams where not already in place – networking; pitching; skills, aptitude and personality assessments; interviews; matchmaking exercises and facilitation… all the sorts of things that happen in the real world anyway, so early exposure to them would surely be no bad thing.

Most of the projects would fail. But the experience gained would be invaluable and go a long way towards creating the sort of well-rounded multi-skilled people we need. We often preach the mantra of “fail fast, fail often” – failure is not a bad thing; we learn from our mistakes and we move on.

Perhaps after a year some projects are showing signs of promise – so maybe we provide the option to extend the program for another year. And maybe some projects, just a few, will go on to be successful – perhaps financially, which conceivably might even pay for the entire program, or perhaps by having a real social or cultural impact.

Granted, spending a year trying to build a startup – even with support structures – won’t be for everyone. Not everyone will have the motivation, desire or aptitude – just as not everyone is right for a career in the digital industries. But as a third option, alongside university and apprenticeships, might it have value?

Could it work? Is it already being done? Comments please!

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

1 thought on “Addressing the Digital Skills Gap: Publicly-Funded Startups?

  1. Jon Post author

    Oh, something I should have added – this would need to be proactive, something that’s offered to students as part of the options when considering their next steps after school. It can’t be left as something that those in the know find out about and apply for. There are plenty of business support schemes, incubators, venture capitalists, business angels etc. for those who already have startups they want to take to the next level, or those with an idea they want to get going. This is about using the startup model as a vehicle for acquiring skills and experience. If successful businesses come about as a result, then so much the better, but first and foremost it’s about learning.


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