IBM's Jenny Taylor on educating for tomorrow's UK economy

By Jenny Taylor

Jenny Taylor, UK Graduate, Apprenticeship and Student Programme Leader at IBM

As thousands of students reflect on their results and go on to choose what subject to take next, and ultimately, what career path or route they wish to take, the debate turns again to the shortage of skills in the technology sector. 

There is huge demand for tech jobs crying out for qualified individuals. 

So, how do we prepare the next generation of students for a new type of career or even one that might not exist yet?

Firstly, let’s address the problem head on. In the UK there is an urgent need to adapt our models of schooling, to respond to the rapidly changing employment landscape. Emerging technologies are changing the world of work rapidly, at a pace that even the most advanced companies in industries hadn’t necessarily anticipated.

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Although technology is helping to create new and exciting jobs, there is the potential for the current skills gaps to widen if the education and training sector fails to keep pace. 

Many employers are already struggling to attract and recruit the right people with the right skills. Cyber security is an area where the skills gap is particularly acute.  As we have seen earlier this year with key infrastructure attacks such as WannaCry, all organisations need to ensure that employees are educated from a security perspective to some level. Yet the supply of young people with these particular skills emerging from our schools and universities is a long way from being able to meet current, let alone future demand.

It is a global problem and there are two successful initiatives operating across a variety of markets. Let’s take the UK first. 

Apprenticeship schemes have been garnering more attention from the media in recent years and rightly so, due to the real-life situational experience they provide. An increasing numbers of students are becoming more aware of alternative paths to successful employment and career opportunities, as opposed to the traditional University route. University should be considered among a multitude of other viable options and some of these options are apprenticeships.   
IBM offer a couple of different types of apprenticeships, one open to school leavers (A-level/diploma equivalent requirements) and the other known as a degree apprenticeship. 
The benefits to pupils opting for this career route are numerous, including a guaranteed salary and no debt, to name a few. However, there are also advantages to employers of apprenticeships that are slowly starting to be recognised.  It is clear employers recognise the value in apprenticeship programmes and they likely to proliferate substantially in the future. 
Apprentices have great value in sought after technology roles too (particularly given the skills shortage we are facing). Apprentices can learn deep technical skills (on the job, in real life situations) and often progress rapidly up the organisational career ladder. In the last few years, IBM has found that apprenticeship retention is high and they are highly valued employees. Not only that – they often outperform graduates and once qualified, are indistinguishable from other technical specialists, bringing a new and fresh approach into a workplace.
Introducing P-TECH
One approach (which we have seen work well in the US) is to disrupt the qualifications state school systems offer and re-determine the skills young people need to develop.  

In the US, many of the vacant technical roles relating to cyber security, cloud computing and software development do not require a degree. Many companies in the US are starting to recruit people who hold an associate degree, a US qualification that sits between a high school diploma and a bachelor’s degree: a middle level qualification for middle level jobs, or what are known as ‘new collar’ jobs.    

At IBM in the US the company is leading a transformation of high school education that means students are graduating, age 18, from its P-TECH schools (Pathways to Early College High Schools) with a high school diploma and an associate degree (equivalent to a Level 4 qualification such as a HNC or BTEC here in England) in, for example, engineering or computer systems technology. The new school model is equipping young people with the qualifications and professional skills they will need to progress to the ‘new collar’ jobs that are being created by emerging technologies.

A call to action
It’s clear there is a call to action for businesses governments and education authorities alike to ensure that they are equipping the next generation with the tools and qualifications they need to be successful. Never has it been more apparent that huge change is needed to support the dramatic acceleration and evolution of technology and we must embrace this change, in order to produce optimal results for our societies. 


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