Businesses as well as education have a role to play in solving the UK’s technical skills gap.
It’s very easy to say it’s universities’ fault for not turning out enough students with the right skills, or it’s schools’ fault for not encouraging more children - girls especially - to do computer science.
In my view, it’s everybody’s responsibility.
When a business identifies a gap it should be proactive in tackling it early. That might be setting up a project for a local secondary school that encourages pupils to think about security or technology or digital; or it might be sending in their experts to talk to pupils; or attending a careers event that makes tech fun and cool.
How can universities develop tech-savvy students?
At my institution, the University of South Wales (USW), we've done quite a lot of project work with industry where we give students a real-world problem or research projects to work on as part of their course and we've had great success with that.
Some of those students have gone on to a summer placement or a job with these companies at the end of their course.
The student gets to learn about real-life problems, which is a valuable experience, and the company gets the benefit of fresh and innovative minds with little, if any, cost. It’s also a way for both parties to see whether they like each other and can work together in the future.
For example, a group of students carried out a pre-Cyber Essentials check on an organisation and made suggestions as to which areas might need work before the company applied for certification.
Another student on a master’s course was asked to pen test (ethically hack) a new piece of software a company was developing. He tested where he thought all the flaws might be and then fed back what he found so the company could investigate and fix the vulnerabilities.
What can education do to attract and retain employees?
While there may be higher salaries available in the private sector, universities and colleges still have a lot to offer employees. In big institutions there will be opportunities to try different roles in different departments.
Another attractive benefit is access to expertise and training – something further and higher education organisations have in abundance.
Skills development is not just about trying to attract new people into education, it's about training and retraining existing employees. Encourage staff to undertake a few modules, or a master’s degree.
There’s a lot that technical staff and academics can learn from each other too, and that symbiotic relationship provides learning opportunities that make working in the education sector an attractive proposition.
Breaking down the traditional silos that often exist can greatly improve synergy between teaching and technology/IT staff.
For example, a few years ago, following a phishing attack at USW, the IT staff and academics worked closely together to protect the institution. It was effective because we benefited from all the latest thinking on protecting systems, current threats and governance. As a result of that cross-team working, we set up an information security group with people from the IT team, senior executives and one or two cyber security lecturers, and that continues today.
It leads to useful cross-fertilization of thinking.
How can more women be encouraged into tech roles?
I don't think there's one answer to this.
A lot of it is about culture, which can be deeply ingrained. For example, a high proportion of the computing staff in secondary schools are male and the way that computing is delivered is often more interesting to boys than it is to girls.
Girls generally prefer to understand why what they’re doing is beneficial to themselves and society, so supporting teachers in making computer science more relevant and exciting is essential.
It’s also important for girls to see the vast range of cyber security careers on offer – it's not just back-end programming. Most organisations have an IT helpdesk, for example, and phishing is all about social engineering and psychology. The scammers play on the fear of doing wrong and technical staff need to know how to support people who may become victims.
How can educators encourage diversity in technology roles?
At university I studied music, with computing as a second subject; a female colleague who did a master’s in computing did an English degree first.
So I think it's quite typical for girls and young women to move into computing a bit later.
In my experience, people who have done degrees in non-technical subjects and then return to technology are usually very well-rounded and have a wealth of experience and skills to draw on. This can be very beneficial.
One of the biggest challenges in IT teams is that they are often very technically capable people, but they can have a narrow view of the world. That's where a more diverse team can be powerful. Diversity is much better for institutions.
I founded Women In Cyber, Wales because I felt quite isolated as a woman in a man’s world. It’s grown considerably as a support system and networking opportunity for women in the cyber industry.
I’m also a huge supporter of the NCSC’s CyberFirst programme, which supports and encourages young people - especially girls - to consider careers in the industry. We are already seeing an increase in the number of girls taking computer science, so that's a real positive.
However, it's a very, very slow ship to turn: higher education is getting better at promoting diversity and encouraging women into the tech subjects, but there’s still quite a way to go.
There's a lot of unconscious bias that still exists in universities and changing that will take a long, long time. It is improving, but I think it's slow and in 10 years’ time I doubt we'll have solved it.
I’d love to say that we are nearing equality in the tech space, but I think that will be some time away.
That’s why it’s so important for everyone to look at their own teams, consider whether they are diverse and, if not, do something about it.
And, of course, the added benefit of increasing diversity in the sector is that it will help improve the skills gap too.
Find out more
Clare Johnson is speaking at the Jisc security conference, 7-9 November, at the ICC Newport.