by Mark Owens, Managing Director, Civica Northern Ireland

The Chancellor Philip Hammond recently announced that education in Northern Ireland would receive a £300 million boost from the UK Government. This comes as a welcome relief to many as we continue to tackle the issue of skilled IT talent moving away to other parts of the UK and the globe to work. Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the fact that Brexit may have a negative impact on our pool of skilled employment – which could undermine the nation’s competitiveness in an era of digital transformation.

Northern Ireland is currently at a digital tipping point, with proven technology experience, capacity and capability and further UK government investment for a network of technology testbeds. Much is already being done to drive digital transformation within Northern Ireland; we see this every day in our work with public bodies across the country from government to health and social care trusts, social housing and the police and emergency services.

However to continue the great progress already underway, there needs to be a stronger focus on education and continuing to develop technology talent throughout the region to ensure digital initiatives continue. That’s why it’s crucial that the new investment from government must be used to boost STEM skills, harness innovation and create initiatives to entice our young people to remain in Northern Ireland and help form our new digital identity.

While we cannot entirely predict what the future of work will look like for our current primary school cohort, we know that there will be a strong reliance on digital technologies. The need to be digital and data-literate when entering the world of work will become vital for the economic and social prosperity of Northern Ireland, with digital skills at the heart of most, if not all, future jobs. Ensuring children are prepared for the digital age will be a shared challenge, with businesses, schools and universities alike responsible for promoting a fresh and innovative approach to digital learning.

ICT should not be a siloed subject in the primary school curricula, but rather technology should be woven in to every aspect of modern education to help foster positive attitudes towards digital learning from an early age. Civica is engaging primary schools in Northern Ireland through initiatives such as CoderDojo and CodeIT to teach children how to code, develop apps and programs, as well as to promote ICT as an aspirational career. By educating young pupils about the importance of computational skills, we hope to help further align education with the needs of modern businesses.

Of course, there’s a risk of overwhelming primary school children with complicated technical jargon, therefore we must be careful in the way we approach digital learning at an early age. Using practical, real-world examples could help young pupils better understand and appreciate the importance and prevalence of technology in society rather than seeing it as merely another academic subject. For example, showing young pupils how an iPhone game works to encourage app development or using a SmartHome system to explain the Internet of Things.

With a strong foundation of technical knowledge laid down in primary school, teenagers may be more inclined to pursue ICT education when they reach secondary education. Digital learning should be even more centred around real-world, work-ready scenarios in high schools and colleges so that once young people reach university they have a solid and diverse digital skillset, which could be applied to further learning or in a work-related setting.

Businesses like Civica are helping boost Northern Ireland’s ICT skills base by offering students a scholarship package which combines university knowledge and hands-on business experience. Supported by Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, our scholarship programme offers students a bursary as well as paid summer and industrial placements to complement their undergraduate degree and help fast track their career in the digital space. There is an obvious opportunity here for businesses to play a greater role in supporting the career development at local universities, whilst also plugging skills gaps within their own workforce. Not only is this a great way of retaining the best IT talent in Northern Ireland, but we’ve also found that the majority of young people who come to work for us during their studies return after graduating.

Whilst schools and colleges have a responsibility to equip young people with the necessary skills to thrive in the digital workplace, businesses must also play their part in training and retaining talent to continue driving innovation. With rising university fees and looming Brexit uncertainty, we must harness the digital skills of the next generation– as they are the key to providing a steady stream of talent for tech companies in the region to continue the great work being done in the digital space. Only by encouraging young people to stay within education and develop the technology skills required for tomorrow, can we ensure that Northern Ireland continues along its path to become a digital leader.

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