Why isn’t computer science more popular?
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Why isn’t computer science more popular?

Why isn’t computer science more popular?

Posted on 17th December 2018

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That’s a $64,000 question and I need to say at the outset that I don’t know the answer. However, I am, for personal as well as practical business reasons, very interested in trying to find one.  In my last blog, I set out the background. In my view, the scale of the problem is unarguable, but just in case you weren’t with me last time, just note that 97% of organisations working in STEM have had difficulty hiring skilled employees over the last 12 months, while a 2017 report by Tech Nation revealed over 50% of business owners in the UK digital tech community reported a shortage of highly skilled employees and a quarter said sourcing talent was a major challenge.

Yes, the problems are obvious, and one of them is that it’s too easy simply to churn out reams of stats about the gap between the number of graduates and the number of jobs.  It’s more difficult to probe the reasons for this gap, and even here there is a tendency to concentrate on the easy targets (gender et al).

So what are (some of) the reasons why the huge progress made by the UK’s technology industries is in danger of slowing in the next few years due to the lack of suitably qualified entrants to the digital/tech sector? 

Let’s start by discounting one possible issue, namely, that there are shiploads of qualified immigrants “stealing our jobs.”   In fact, there are not remotely enough qualified immigrants able to get past our current Tier 2 visa restrictions, although this might change, depending on the country’spost-Brexit immigration policy. However, at the time of writing all bets on that particular subject are off, but, and it’s a big but given the shambles so far, this might be an area where a more sensible approach to skilled immigrants actually benefits the country. It could do this by making up the shortfall in the short-medium term while we try to work out how to encourage more people to study computer science at our schools and universities.

Just why kids are not interested in science and computing is, if not a mystery, certainly a puzzle. Yes, you have to have an aptitude for maths and other difficult stuff, but for many it’s not an insurmountable hurdle.  Coding clubs are a good way ahead, taking kids out of a school environment and putting them alongside others of a similar mindset. There are currently more than 4,600 clubs across the UK, teaching over 65,000 kids aged from nine to 11 about coding.  Let’s see more of these.

Another factor, and one that may or may not surprise you, is that, for all that this country is the fifth ranked global economy, according to the World Economic Forum we are ranked 41st for quality of science and maths teaching.  The top ten are: Singapore, Finland, Switzerland, Lebanon, Netherlands, Qatar, Belgium, Estonia, Hong Kong and the USA. Do some of these countries surprise you?  

Of course, the lack of teachers noted in last week’s blog is also an issue.   However, it is generally recognised that inspiring teachers produce inspired pupils, and if the quality as well as the quantity is poor then we are starting from a position of considerable weakness.  But just what is it that Lebanon, Estonia and Belgium do that makes then rank so much higher than Britain? It seems to me it would be a good idea to find out and see if we can replicate some of it.

Then there is another possible explanation for the lack of people coming through university to work in IT.  A study by academics at Leicester University and the University of Warwick, published this summer (2018), poses the intriguing question, “Is there really a shortage of science graduates?”  The answer, according to their paper, is, no, the majority of science graduates do not work in highly skilled science, technology, engineering and maths occupations at any time in their careers (my underlining). This study also makes the valid point that a large percentage of those working in STEM industries are not, in fact, graduates but often come via apprenticeships and, consequently, we need to focus equally on other routes to employment. The authors conclude that, “problems with the ‘supply’of STEM workers are more likely to be explained by the willingness of graduates to pursue careers in STEM fields and the recruitment practices of employers.”

Although it must be stressed that the Leicester/Warwick study covers all STEM areas and not just tech, their conclusions are certainly interesting.  In contrast, Be-IT’s 2018 research project on IT graduate employment found that just over two-thirds of graduates had gone into a tech job after graduating, with 32% either not having got a job in the industry or not working in IT/computing at all. This tallies with a 2014 study from America that showed that, in the USA 61% of computer science-related graduates were employed full-time in their field. 

The Leicester/Warwick study also suggests that, “computer science and engineering graduates had above average rates of unemployment, six months after graduating.” That’s not a surprise.  It’s often reported that computer science graduates apparently have one of the highest rates of unemployment of any sector. Google searches suggest there is a lot of evidence (by way of reports and academic papers) that unemployment in computer science, over the last five years at least, has been much higher than might have been expected. In the UK, Target Jobs, the leading graduate recruitment website, tells us that, “Recruiters report that students applying for graduate technology jobs are particular culprits for not taking applications and employability seriously enough What’s more, computer science graduates actually have the highest unemployment rate of all degree disciplines.”   (to be continued)

Nikola Kelly, MD, Be-IT

Posted in Opinion, Recruitment News, STEM

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