The lack of qualified technical specialists is well-documented. According to the UK Commission for Employment & Skills, 43 percent of vacancies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) are hard to fill – almost double the average of 24 percent. This is mainly down to a shortage of applicants with the required skills and experience.
Recruitment specialist Adecco has also been crunching the numbers and found a similar situation in the US, predicting that by 2018, there will be 2.4 million unfilled STEM vacancies. There is also only one unemployed person suitable for every 1.9 Stem job listings – this compares to an average of 3.6 unemployed people for every one job listing across all sectors.
The core root of this growing skills gap is education. Adecco revealed that universities are only graduating enough computer science engineers to fill 30 percent of US Stem jobs by 2020.
Back in the UK, the numbers are equally worrying. Only 15,000 UK students sat a computing or ICT A-Level this summer – accounting for less than two percent of the overall exams sat. Even though the number of computing A-Levels taken increased this year, the numbers only grew by around 500 students year on year.
So all the current focus on STEM skills and initiatives to portray technology as a thriving industry, one worthy of young people’s attention, are clearly not having that much impact.
Enter Salesforce with plans for tackling the STEM skills gap head-on by expanding its Circle the Schools programme outside of San Francisco and the US.
Via its Salesforce.org philanthropic division, the company has initially teamed up with two UK schools to work from the ground up on ensuring students get access to the right IT skills and education, and leave school brimming with enthusiasm for technology.
The two schools are very different in their needs and situations. School 21 is a secondary school in Stratford, East London, while St Peter’s in Bray is a primary school in a very deprived area just outside Dublin. Salesforce has very recently given both schools a $100,000 grant, along with a commitment that it will contribute time and resources to help the students thrive.
I caught up with Charlotte Finn, VP, Programs EMEA at Salesforce.org, at Dreamforce in San Francisco, to hear more about the plans. She explained that what the two schools have in common is they both have requirements that utilise all the assets Salesforce could offer – technology, resources and time – and they both have a forward-thinking approach to education:
School 21 is an academy secondary school, co-founded by Oli de Botton, who has been a head teacher and teacher for many years. He looked at teaching curriculums, and his belief – and we have also been talking about this at Salesforce – is that the current school curriculum does not meet the needs for 21st century jobs. You have these corporations and entrepreneurs and incredible innovations happening, but the school curriculum doesn’t keep up with that and it’s still rooted very much in the past. School 21 is unique because Oli has adapted the school curriculum to really trailblaze and resolve those gaps.
St Peter’s is in a socially deprived area with a large, unsettled community where the majority of parents are unemployed. A high proportion of the children have learning difficulties, and the Salesforce grant will fund a sensory perception room to give the children a safe place, as well as a computer lab. Finn said:
They have 15 computers donated in 2003 and nine of them don’t work. They’re currently in the library so all the books are in the corridor. They’ll get their library back as we’re going to build them a computer suite.
Location was a key factor in choosing the schools. Stratford is just a few miles away from Salesforce’s Heron Tower building in London, while St Peter’s is near to the firm’s Dublin office. Finn explained:
Where we are most successful is where we have programmes that our employees can give their time and participate in. We’ve been flooding our employees into the school. This is where Circle the Schools comes from. We encircle the school with our resources, our technology and our time.
We’re East London-based because of the City, and we wanted somewhere that was easy for our employees to get to. Staff can go down and do a one-hour coaching session with a pupil. School 21 is the perfect school and perfect need and they have the innovation and the vision.
Salesforce.org is planning to start working with schools in all the areas where it has key hubs and employees, including Canada, Australia and Germany. Salesforce has been working with School 21 for three months, and St Peters only received its grant in the last couple of weeks. The company is now starting the hunt for its next two UK schools, looking in both London and Liverpool.
There is also the intention that the schools supported by Salesforce will share their learnings and approaches with other schools, enabling the programme to reach a wider pool of teachers and students. Finn said:
The grant Salesforce has given will allow School 21 to supply the technology capability one to one to every child and every teacher. They can put technology teaching at the heart of the curriculum, through teaching them coding, and through teaching them all the different types of opportunity that technology can create.
Oli wants to build a network out, to take the successes he’s been having and enable other like-minded schools, head teachers and teachers, and education groups to do a similar thing.
Finn hopes that expanding the Circle the Schools programme across Europe and beyond will act as a catalyst for change, and encourage other educators and businesses to support Stem skills projects. Part of this is moving away from the current outdated curriculum. She explained:
It’s an incredibly daunting and difficult task to change the curriculum. It’s like moving a building from one side of the road to the other. But if we don’t, we are not going to enable young people for the future. We can continue this incredible pace of innovation that we have, but if young people aren’t getting the opportunity to learn, how can they pick up the mantle and carry it on in the next 30 years or so?
Corporates have such a huge vested interest in ensuring our children are interested. It’s not just the responsibility of schools and teachers, local education authorities and government to support and enable updating of the curriculum to enable that building to move from one side of the road to another. If we don’t do it and corporates don’t support it, then who else is going to do it for you? I hope many more organisations are starting to see this.
Salesforce is also keen to use the programme to promote diversity in the technology industry. Students at the selected schools will encounter staff who are younger and older, male and female, from different ethnic backgrounds, and from marketing, sales and developer disciplines. Finn said:
We want them to understand it doesn’t matter what you look like, it doesn’t matter where you live. All that matters is that you embrace the opportunity. It’s focused on enabling a child to see that a scientist now is not a white-haired mad guy, but some of the most amazing scientists are young vibrant women that are doing incredible things.
I have to commend Salesforce for the work it’s doing. While I’ve come across many examples of IT companies paying lip service to the importance of Stem skills, it’s rare to hear of this level of funding and hands-on support, especially at such a sustained level.
As a former teacher (English at an East London-based secondary), I think the biggest challenge here will be the curriculum change. Teachers are some of the most overworked people – I can vouch for this from experience – and asking them to overhaul their lesson plans and teaching methods will add further to their workloads, and won’t always be well-received.
The best approach here is to get a few like-minded teachers on-side, as is happening with Salesforce and School 21, and rely on those working in education to go out and spread the word. Other teachers highlighting tried and tested ways that curriculum tweaks have been carried out, and the positive results achieved, will go down much better than government-led diktats.
Image credit - Salesforce
Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.