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Who will you give a digital future to? Training an army that knows digital, but doesn’t know us

For what seems like forever, every day, I am confronted with the issue of a lack of digital skills in the communications industry, or rather an ever increasing demand that simply outstrips the supply. In the next two years alone it is estimated that there will be 750,000 unfilled digital roles across the UK and that in the next 20 years more than 10 million jobs will be replaced by a digital alternative, which in turn will create millions more role.

The cost to the industry? Currently £1.2bn-a-year if the hole is not plugged.

The solution seems simple – train more people. However, sadly the communications industry is guilty of ignoring alternative solutions and instead sticking to the ‘old guard’ approach of requiring everyone to have graduated from a degree course. With more and more students studying degrees every year this would be great, if of course the graduating students had learnt anything about the industry during their three years on campus.

I sound very cynical; there is obviously a place for a good degree, related to the field of work that you want to enter, but how many graduates have joined the advertising industry with History, Geography, Sports Science degrees versus a specifically related course? Just look around and you’ll see. Young people do degrees, more often than not because they feel that they have to in order to be considered for employment and not because they learn anything about the trade that they’re going to go into.

Degrees are driving up elitism. There are more people employed in advertising now with degrees than ever before, yet the cost of a degree has rocketed, mean that you’re either a) rich enough to afford it, or b) will accept that you have to take on the burden of huge debt into your working life. Demographically, this is doing nothing to break up the typical agency or marketing profile of white men and women, aged 25-40 years old, with a middle England background. Put simply, everyone else is pretty much excluded.

Consider the socio economic and moral position, how much does it cost to get a degree these days? The average debt is estimated to be £44k from 2015 onwards. The more we demand degrees, the more we indebt society. Do we want to be responsible for generations of 30-somethings still living at home with their parents, or renting until their 40 because they can’t afford to buy, whilst they’re still paying off their student debt?

The Tech Nation report ‘Powering the Digital Economy’ determined that “digital businesses rely more on self-taught skills and internal training to build employee skills than they do universities.”

Let’s utilise those that are more self-taught and teach them practical skills on the job, using the expertise we have in our digital businesses today. After all, haven’t we all seen newbies that are passionate and determined blossom under the guidance of work colleagues with more experience than them? There’s always one person in every business that doesn’t come from the ‘traditional’ route in, who surprises everyone with how adept they are and how quickly they can pick things up and progress. These ‘one-offs’ can be amplified very easily, by utilising an in-work program and blending it with a formalised educational element.

Let’s throw out the idea that you have to have a degree before you start in the industry and instead pay young talent to work, but give them opportunity to learn formally at the same time, working towards a qualification, possibly even a degree. What if we encouraged applications from every walk of life and assessed suitability based on potential, not qualifications alone? The advertising and communications industry serves a broad and diverse audience across the UK; surely it makes sense to staff our creative agencies and marketing departments with an equally diverse compliment of staff?

There are growing battalions of young people leaving school and colleges that are shunning the university debt route and instead being drawn to the well-established young talent programs of the sciences, engineering, law, accountancy and entertainment. Whilst the excluded NEETS (not in education, employment or training) have little choice but to gravitate towards retail, fast food or industrial low skilled job sectors because their YouTube-following, music producing, socially amplified, digital native profiles don’t fit the traditional mould.

As a result, Digital Futures has been born to address the digital skills and diversity gap, capturing the imagination of the widest pool of young people possible and placing them in a new kind of apprenticeship program with a forward thinking business. It’s a program whose lecturers are in the industry right now, working for some of the best agencies and brands out there. Professionals who know what the effect of an algorithmic change from Google will be on digital advertising and marketing.

Addressing the digital skills gap, challenging the diversity issues and building a digital economy that will thrive over the coming years isn’t going to be easy. But with supportive businesses, keen to take their place and change attitudes, policies and recruitment, we can deliver real impact.

Jonathan Lindon is chief executive officer at Digital Futures, a digital skills training business focused on placing 16-24 year olds into apprenticeships and training. 

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