Is Our Digital Future At Risk Because Of The Gen Z Skills Gap?
13 December 2022
According to a recent survey by Gartner, 64% of IT professionals think the skills shortage is the biggest barrier to adoption of game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence (AI). A separate survey of banking, insurance and telecoms professionals published by SunTec found that the difficulty in recruiting skilled staff is the biggest obstacle to achieving business goals in 2022.
One optimistic way to look at this, perhaps, is that education is simply lagging behind industry demand – and when the next generation of technology workers graduate, they will be equipped with the skills needed to get the job done. Unfortunately, findings of another survey suggest that this might not be the case.
Baby boomers, Gen Xers and often even Millennials have become used to thinking of Gen Z as the first truly “digital native” generation. They were born when the internet was available to everyone and don’t remember a time when it wasn’t normal to carry a smartphone wherever they go and document their lives on TikTok and Instagram. Unfortunately, it turns out that this form of digital native might not translate to being able to work with the tools and technologies that are expected to shape the 21st century.
Research published recently by Intel found a surprising lack of understanding around some of the most important technology trends, which are widely forecast to drive business success over the next ten years. In particular, it found deficiencies in the understanding of AI, cybersecurity and quantum computing.
Although I personally feel we may be waiting a little while longer until quantum computing truly makes an everyday impact on business and society, I have no doubt that the other two technologies are critical for driving growth and creating opportunities today. Being unable to exploit them due to lack of workforce skills is certain to put any industry or economy at a disadvantage.
The report focuses on the UK but will be equally relevant to other developed countries – and it seems likely the problem will only be more pronounced in developing countries. While 45% of the 1,000 18 to 21-year-olds surveyed were interested in taking up a career in technology, 55% of them admitted they don’t understand or have no idea of what AI is.
Additionally, it highlighted a mismatch between the perception of generation Z when it comes to the impact that new technology trends will have on the future of work, and forecasts of what the situation is likely to actually be. For example, the World Economic Forum predicts that nine out of ten jobs will require digital skills in the future, while the representatives of generation Z who took part in the survey pegged the figure at just over six out of ten.
According to Trish Blomfield, Intel’s general manager for the UK, this shows that the younger working generation (which will make up 27% of the workforce by 2025) has not been educated on the important role that technology will have on their careers.
She told me “Four out of five jobs already ask for digital skills and that demand is only increasing. We’ve had accelerated digital transformation throughout the covid pandemic, and already a quarter of employers are saying they face skills gaps … it’s a limiter to business success and it’s a limiter to people’s life opportunities. It’s also a limiter on different country’s economies.”
This is important work that highlights a real danger. To be clear, I don’t think that everyone needs to be able to write with computer code (let alone program a quantum computer).
But it is important that as many people as possible finish their education with an understanding of how technology is being used to transform just about every industry and job, and how it’s likely to be used going forward. This encompasses ideas such as augmented working, where we will increasingly work alongside smart machines and AI-enabled tools that will help us work more efficiently and effectively.
Crucially, I feel, this report doesn’t simply highlight the need to empower today’s learners with “hard” tech skills. The rise of low-code/no-code solutions and platforms mean that augmenting one’s ability to work via technology isn’t limited to engineers and programmers. Soft skills, including communication, creativity, critical thinking and design skills, are just as important when it comes to leveraging technology to its full potential.
Blomfield says, “We’ve got into, I think, these stereotyped beliefs about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and future jobs … so our respondents thought studying traditional STEM subjects was likely to help them find a job, more so than studying creative arts … but [that leads to] this binary thinking … that if you are a student that’s talented in the humanities you might feel excluded from STEM.
“Conversely, if you’re a STEM student you’re going to miss out on these softer skills, critical thinking, communication skills – these are really necessary even in a highly digital market.”
This research resonated with me, as it touches on something I have always thought is important. Creative, human skills – which won’t be replicated by machines any time in the near future than hard technical skills such as mathematics or programming – are really more likely to be the skills that will define us as successful humans in the near future. This is illustrated by the fact that 16 of the 20 skills I picked out as important enough to include in my recent book, Future Skills, are “soft skills”.
“STEM to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) should be the long-term vision for digital skills in education,” Blomfield tells me.
This will potentially also have an impact when it comes to encouraging more females to look to technology as a future career.
“We found in our research that females, even in generation Z, self-score themselves as better at creative subjects than [STEM subjects], and that narrows the pathway, they feel there’s a narrower pathway into being an engineer or a scientist or a mathematician.”
Identifying the problem is always the first step towards effecting a solution. It’s clear that studies like this one play an important role in communicating the importance of reassessing the way we are teaching and promoting technology in education. Once again, it highlights the importance of promoting accessibility and diversity when it comes to STEM learning in schools, and broadcasting the fact that technology is for everyone, not just those with an affinity for learning about math or computer science.
You can click here to see my conversation with Trish Blomfield, Intel’s head of country for the UK, where we dive deeper into the importance of education in overcoming the tech skills crisis.
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