Digital skills are key to tackling social mobility

By Anna Smee

You don’t need to be a tech expert to know there’s a digital skills gap in the UK, costing our economy billions of pounds every year. If we look at society more broadly, a Government report suggested there is a wider skills gap that could result in nine million low-skilled people chasing the same four million jobs by 2022, creating a shortage of 12 million high-skilled jobs at the other end of the labour market.

While it’s safe to say most people would like to live in a society that’s fair, where merit is rewarded and young people across the country have a similar chance of health and happiness; our society can still grant success based on an individual’s background, birth and where they live.

As technology advances, it presents an opportunity to create a society that’s fair for all young people. But only if all young people have access to this tech.

In 2014, UK Youth looked at the hundreds of thousands of young people in our network. We discovered that many under 18s in the UK did not have sufficient technology resources at home. This reduced exposure to technology limited their general skills in IT, which put them at a disadvantage in college or the job market and reduced their opportunities in life.

We recognise that young people need supported access to technology outside of school, so they can be inspired beyond an outdated ICT curriculum, taught about online safety and be equipped with skills relevant to a job market where 90% of new jobs created require digital skills.

That’s why we partnered with Microsoft to create a network of 75 Microsoft Youth Hubs across the UK and help young people access free services in their local community. Our member youth organisations could apply for funding to invest in the necessary technology and staff resources to support peer-led digital skills across the UK.

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More than half of the young people who attended one of our Microsoft Youth Hubs were limited to accessing IT elsewhere. Many were from homes without an internet connection or one family computer, offering limited access. Several hubs worked with disability groups, and we supported multiple housing shelters so that young people could take crucial steps towards independence.

In our Microsoft Youth Hubs, young people reported a 90% improvement in their technology skills, while 87% felt more confident to pursue a digital career and 88% showed improvements in key life skills such as motivation, responsibility and resilience.

After the success of our hubs, in 2016 we expanded the partnership to create Generation Code – our new coding programme providing training and resources to inspire young people to get creative, get connected and get coding. Almost 10,000 young people from across the UK have already taken part in Generation Code. Of these, 83% had never coded before and 71% were from the most deprived areas of the UK. Through Generation Code, young people’s skills and attitudes towards coding significantly improved – in particular, females under the age of 15 showed the greatest increase.

Representatives of Microsoft and UK Youth with their award
Representatives of Microsoft and UK Youth with their award

Our partnership with Microsoft was recognised at the National CSR Awards on Thursday night, winning Best Individual Community Project. The award recognised our digital skills programmes and the wider support we have received from Microsoft, including fundraising activities that have raised more than £200,000, and the thousands of volunteering hours supporting UK Youth’s digital work and the upkeep of our outdoor learning centre, Avon Tyrrell. But as we prepare to launch Generation Code 2.0 in June, we want young people to be the real winners. Using the power of technology, we can tackle social mobility issues and create a society where all young people have access to high-quality services and are empowered to build bright futures, whatever their background our circumstances.

Anna Smee is Chief Executive of UK Youth

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