How to develop the next generation of IT leaders

Party GirlIt often astonishes me to see how easily young children can grasp the mechanics of a smartphone. For many people of my generation, becoming digitally literate is a gradual learning process. But many of today’s youngsters demonstrate an instinctive ability to work with new technologies. And as kids get older, they spend more and more time immersed in IT-related activities — from playing video games to talking to friends via social media.

However, this natural appreciation for IT doesn’t always translate into a more formal interest in technology. In many countries, employers complain that the education system does not produce enough young people with the level of IT skills needed to meet the demands of business. And technology subjects in schools and colleges do not always attract the hoped-for level of interest.

The private sector of today needs a pipeline of IT-literate employees. And technology-reliant organizations, in particular, are already facing skills shortages. So what can they do to help enthuse more kids about IT? Here are some ideas for starters:

  • Make fun the first objective. Many companies are now sponsoring IT clubs for kids who want to play around with technology — from coding to building a robot. For instance, UK semiconductor design company Arm Holdings already funds more than 1,000 such clubs.
  • Consider direct intervention in schools and colleges. Some firms are already using this strategy. In the US, for example, private companies have so far pledged more than US$750m of finance to pay for the rollout of new technologies in classrooms around the country.
  • Tailor projects to help develop skills. Initiatives aimed at encouraging children to learn certain skills can also work very well. In a number of different countries, US internet giant Google has worked with the educational authorities to supply Raspberry Pi units (credit card-sized programmable computers) to schools. This has given even the youngest kids the change to learn the basics of coding.
  • Engage with policy-makers and educators. Companies must help these key stakeholders to understand what technology skills should be taught in schools. In many countries, technology teaching centers on the basic use of computers — such as word processing — but doesn’t touch upon more fundamental skills, such as coding or app development.
  • Educate the teachers. Companies need to do more to support those who pass on digital learning to children. This may be through the training of teachers, or even by providing their own instructors, lessons and workshops. US semiconductor manufacturer Intel is doing exactly that through its Educator Academy, which operates in many countries and provides a wealth of online material.
  • Promote IT as a career path. Companies should help sell IT as a career option to kids. In the UK, for example, science, technology and engineering companies have been financing an annual event aimed at schoolchildren. The Big Bang Fair has been up and running since 2009. This year it was attended by 65,000 children and young people aged 7–19. The fair uses entertaining and educational experiments, demonstrations and exhibitions to highlight the exciting career opportunities in these industries.

All told, there are already some exciting and encouraging initiatives being implemented by companies to encourage children to take an interest in IT. And, as the next generation moves into the job market, these small steps are likely to generate positive results.

But there is a lot more that can be done, and I would urge companies to be more proactive. The truth is that no state can possibly hope to adapt its education system at the rate businesses’ skill demands evolve. And so it is hugely important that leading companies lend support and expertise to assist the development and education of our young people.

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