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How to solve a skills crisis

A career can be rewarding in more ways than improving your bank balance, says Billy MacInnes
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28 April 2022

With the skills shortage showing no signs of abating, people are coming up with some interesting possible solutions. Personally, I think the easiest way to reduce or eliminate the skills crisis is to minimise the level of skills required to write software and get it to work properly. But what do I know.

One approach that seems to be ever-popular with some technology leaders and politicians is a greater emphasis on STEM and technology skills in education, starting in school. Hand-in-hand with these attempts to increase enthusiasm for STEM is a bid to make it seem cooler, easier and less specialist than most young people perceive it to be. All that needs to happen is for educational institutions and government to do a better job of evangelising the benefits.

Cezary Dynak, head of Node.js at software development company STX Next, argues something along these lines in a recent press release calling for improved accessibility and awareness of coding in schools. He accepts that coding has become more accessible than ever before, in theory at least, because all it needs is a computer and a connection to the Internet.

 

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But Dynak adds that “in reality, accessibility is much more than that. The issue is not that young people don’t want to work in tech, it’s that they aren’t presented with it as a viable career path at school or introduced to it in the right way. Making young people aware of the need for coding skills, and of what they can achieve through coding is a great place to start.”

For example, a career in coding should be presented as exciting. “Young people might not be drawn in by the promise of a high salary. In presenting coding to young people, make sure to highlight its potential and what can be achieved with it,” Dynak says. Coding should not just a viable career option, but a job “that rewards creativity, collaboration and persistence and gives people the chance to make a positive impact on the world”.

In addition, early experiences of coding “should be visual and rewarding” and the stereotype of coders as loners should also be discouraged. “In reality, the best work is done in teams and most of your time is spent as a crucial part of a much wider set-up,” he observes.

But perhaps the most interesting point is the one he leaves to last: don’t tie coding to maths because it will put lots of people off. “A career as a coder isn’t just for students that excel in maths. It’s a career that rewards skills like communication, collaboration and adaptability,” Dynak claims, adding: “In actual fact, coding shares more similarities with a language class than it does maths.”

In a strange case of serendipity, this is also the subject of an article on ZDNet asking whether a humanities student should learn to code.

There is a snobbishness against humanities degrees which has devalued them in the rush to push students towards STEM and business qualifications. To some extent it has backfired because people are still taking humanities degrees but the lack of respect they perceive for their degrees within the STEM industries means they rarely apply for jobs in those areas. In any case, they are unlikely to be considered for a lot of them.

But with the IT industry desperate to recruit employees with the potential to acquire the skills it is crying out for, this could be a very short-sighted view. The article’s author Matthew Sweeney argues that programming “draws upon the skills used in the humanities, such as problem-solving, critical thinking and pattern recognition. “Learning coding requires mastering the ‘grammar’ and syntax of coding languages,” he adds. “You use the same skills when learning a spoken language.”

Sweeney’s conclusion is that learning to code “is not unlike learning any other language. It is a journey into the unknown that involves stretching your ‘learning muscles’ into new flexibility”. It can benefit humanities students by opening new professional and personal avenues for them to explore. “Coding is not by any means dry and boring – it can expand your mind,” he concludes, which may be over-stating it a little bit.

Still, if it does, all the better, although the suspicion remains that it’s not just prospective employees who could benefit from having their minds expanded.

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