The UK is facing a digital skills crisis. That was the warning from MPs this summer when they revealed how the UK needs to find another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017 or the country’s productivity and competitiveness would be at risk.
The Commons Science and Technology Committee’s damning report details how 22 per cent of IT equipment in schools is ineffective, a mere 35 per cent of computer science teachers have a relevant qualification and only 70 per cent of the required number of computer science teachers have been recruited. All of this adds up, it says, to a skills shortage costing the economy around £63bn a year in lost income.
It is a cruel incongruity that while businesses in the digital economy struggle to find talent, hundreds of thousands of digitally native young adults sit unemployed. "The highest proportion of unemployed people are those between 16 and 24," says Jonathan Lindon, chief executive of Digital Futures. "They represent nearly half of the unemployed people in the country."
Digital Futures was set up to give these young people an opportunity to become the innovators, makers and doers of tomorrow. It does so by facilitating apprenticeships for young adults not already in education, employment or training with forward-thinking businesses such as BBH, Blue 449 and Grey – to mention just a few from the marketing industry.
"I’m 42 and I’ve been learning digital for probably 20 years," Lindon says. "But if you’re 20 you’ve been learning digital all your life and the way the younger people adopt digital, deal with digital, use digital communications channels is completely different to the older generation – for them it’s lifestyle rather than work. And therefore what you tend to find is they are adopting skills which are for them just part of everyday life and don’t recognise that those skills are commercially viable in the industry."
One of the reasons they don't realise the value of the talents that come so naturally to them is because the education system is not keeping pace with the digital industry. "If you’ve got a 55-year-old lecturer in front of you that’s been out of industry for 15 years, they’re completely out of touch. Very often they will have never been in the industry, they just know how to write a lesson plan."
To overcome education's blind spots, Digital Futures has created a community of 350 experts who are still active in the digital industry and who have committed to giving up at least half a day a year to support its teaching programme, which runs concurrently with the apprenticeships (apprentices typically do four days a week in work, one in the classroom). "If Google changes its algorithm tomorrow, we can teach what that means to the industry the following week."
These rapid reactions will be put to the test as part of The Drum's Do It Day event, which will see Digital Futures join brands including Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Amnesty International in enlisting the marketing industry to help them solve real-world problems. At the first leg, Plan It Day in London tomorrow, Digital Futures in partnership with Creative Equals, Stripes and Creative Skillset will challenge delegates to come up with a way of getting 100 young adults into a digital work-based opportunity at Do It Day on 10 November.
Digital Futures already has the talented youngsters in place. So the challenge, essentially, is to create a campaign so compelling that it encourages 100 businesses to pledge to take on a full apprentice or an intern for four months. "It is ambitious," admits Lindon. "But it's not daunting because we don't normally issue a creative brief, and because we're an embryonic business ourselves, we're used to doing things in a very agile, very fast way."
Speed will be of the essence at Plan It Day when the creative teams will dream up ideas in a matter of hours before pitching them back to Lindon, who will then decide which to put into action at Do It Day. But with the digital skills shortage such a pressing problem, it feels only right that it will be tackled in such quick-fire fashion.
"The other thing which I think is nice about it is they’re not under a client pressure in the same way they would be in their working environment," says Lindon. "It adds a different dynamic. It allows people to not be constrained by the brief and really be able to think very leftfield about how it might work. And not be too precious about their ideas, or too worried about brand because you’d expect most challengers will understand the constraints they’re under and expect it to be rapid."
With a skills shortage looming, it is in this industry's own vested interest to help the Digital Futures team find a compelling solution tomorrow.
Think you've got what it takes to work on Digital Futures' challenge? Then sign up for Plan It Day here and help The Drum prove that marketing can change the world.