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Retail, software industry and UK govt addressing skills gap challenge

Online jobs marketplace, Hired, published its 'Mind the Gap' report last week, showing in the UK alone there is a significant skills gap in the key growth areas of data and security, online user interface and user experience, and programming languages such as Python and Ruby. Whether measured by supply and demand, interview requests or job offers, these areas consistently emerged as the skills most coveted by the tech industry.

Hired said that market appetite for these skills is far outstripping supply, with, for example, the demand for security engineers increasing by 234% in the last 18 months alone.

With a new wave of online native and tech-led businesses shaking up the retail industry and with traditional retailers dedicating more Capex to technology and eCommerce development than ever before, the need to find staff who know how to use these systems and can navigate their way around the technology involved – or even build it in the first place – is becoming ever greater.

It will be up to the government, businesses and educational institutions to work together to raise the skills levels, of course. With that in mind, it was encouraging to see representatives from the retail community, the technology industry and the UK government all announce significant skills-related strategies in the last few weeks.

The individual programmes are not linked, but they do have a common thread in that they are looking to the future, addressing a skills gap and identifying technology as a crucial area of focus in the years ahead. Essential Retail details the respective skills drives by business supplies retailer Office Depot and software giant Microsoft in the US, and the UK government's Department for Education (DfE).

Microsoft

One of the world's largest software businesses, Microsoft, has announced its Microsoft Professional Degree (MPD) programme, which is said to offer "employer-endorsed, university-calibre curriculum for professionals at any stage of their career". The initial MPD offering is in data science, with all the relevant information and sign-up details available on edX.org, the not-for-profit online learning tool founded by Harvard University and MIT.

Similar to the Hired report, Microsoft had identified a significant skills gap in the field of data science. Since May 2016, over 200 of its partners and 650 of its own employees have been participating in a closed preview to test the new data science curriculum.

The programme is designed as both a catalyst for individuals in the early stages of their careers and an enhancement for mid-career professionals looking to sharpen and learn new skills to continue their work in a high-tech job market. Students will get experience with real-world data, using tools from Microsoft and the open source community such as Excel, Power BI and Cortana Analytics, as well as R and the sought-after Python programming language.

Steven Guggenheimer, corporate vice president and chief evangelist at Microsoft's developer experience and evangelism group, said: "The proliferation of cloud technologies and the delivery of software as a service has opened up tremendous revenue opportunities for our partners.

"MPD will be offered via edX, as well as through learning-as-a-service offerings delivered through partners, to meet customers' evolving training needs and to help close the skills gap we are seeing across a number of industries."

Learning partners for the degree include DDLS, Fast Lane, NIIT and QA.

Office Depot

Through its Office Depot and OfficeMax brands, the business supplies organisation has opened a new STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] wing at Lovejoy High School in Lucas, Texas.

Featuring 12 classrooms, two engineering labs, five computer labs and one think-tank incubator space, geared toward teaching STEM, the space has been designed by Office Depot to facilitate a creative and innovative environment.

The retailer says the space was designed to resemble an industrial and advanced digital workshop with building systems such as electricals and some structural beams left exposed to highlight the systems in place that support and operate the building. The courses offered at the school aim to support students in using a wide variety of skills to solve real world and authentic problems, while fostering creative and practical thinking.

Becki Schwietz, senior director of K-12 initiatives for Office Depot, commented: "Today's classrooms need to stimulate learning in an environment where technology and digital learning are integral components.

"The STEM programme at Lovejoy exemplifies modern learning, and we are pleased to contribute toward this innovative educational solution."

UK Department for Education

The UK government announced some measures last month meaning thousands of technical courses for young people will be replaced with 15 "straightforward routes into technical employment", with the aim to create a more skilled workforce for modern society.

The DfE says that the move has been made to simplify vocational education, with those looking to follow this path currently having to choose between more than 20,000 courses provided by 160 different organisations "with no clear indicator of which course will give them the best chance of landing a job". Underlining this strategy, the government has published its 'Post-16 Skills Plan' which has taken direction from the findings in an independent report led by Lord Sainsbury, which recommends technical education is provided through 15 high-quality routes, with standards being set by employers.

Each route, such as health and science, construction, social care, engineering and manufacturing, will take place either at a college and include a work placement or through apprenticeships. The first routes will be made available from 2019.

All technical routes will build in English, maths and digital skills, according to employers' needs, and will set standards of excellence that the government says are every bit as demanding as A-levels.

Lord Sainsbury's report found, for example, that a would-be engineer today must choose from a possible 501 courses, and the new drive is expected to simplify this key phase of the education process and strengthen ties between the education sector and businesses.

Commenting specifically on the new UK government agenda, Neil Carberry, the Confederation of British Industry's (CBI) director for employment & skills, said businesses have "long called for a vocational route of equal attraction and prominence to A-levels" and described the move as "a real step forward".

"It will be important to ensure the funding system encourages schools and colleges to co-operate so each young person gets the right provision for them," he remarked.

"Giving young people clarity on where technical routes can lead them and the career opportunities they open up is essential if we are going to meet future skills needs. It's also promising to see the role of the employer clearly set out in this new system – business engagement will be critical to ensuring these options are relevant to companies and lead to great careers."

He added: "Making real progress on this agenda will also require an effective apprenticeship system. The design of the proposed levy system needs a radical rethink as business concern and uncertainty around the policy grows with each passing week."