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Agenda: A program that will guarantee we do not suffer a digital skills drought

THE announcement yesterday by the First Minister, committing £6.6m of funding to support digital skills in Scotland, is fantastic news and a real boost for the future of the country's digital economy, a sector that can potentially raise the national Gross Value Added, a measure of economic output, by £3.6bn in the next five to seven years.

However, without continued focus there is still a risk of the nation sleepwalking into a skills drought. We must take a proactive approach to ensure the future generation has the necessary digital skills to meet industry needs.

As the world becomes more dependent on digital technology, young people should not just consume digital content, they should create their own, known as digital making.

Digital skills will give young people a head start in their future career. Research by Make Things Do Stuff highlights that digital technology is essential to the future of the UK economy: 69% of business leaders pick it as the top skill for future success.

The digital job market is lucrative. It employs more than 73,000 people, with many salaries well above the national average. Yet lots of people are unaware of what exactly the digital sector is and, more particularly, the skills required to succeed in it.

It is clear that skills are a big issue. Companies have explained their difficulties in finding recruits with the right skillset, a pressing issue in the modern employment market.

However, the digital skills agenda should also look beyond software developers and industry focused job creation. Learning to program refines computational thinking skills; in essence, problem solving abilities.

These skills are used heavily in computer science and programming, as developers need to be able to "think like a computer", but they are transferable to other areas of work and life. Improving the capacity to analyse a problem, break it into smaller parts, or identify and eliminate "bugs", are not exclusive to the world of computing.

Even young people looking outside a career in technology could benefit from experience in computer programming. As well as the aforementioned problem solving skills, they would be equipped with a practical skill that could allow them to make a difference in their line of work.

Consider a future where more teachers, nurses, or civil servants had a greater understanding of technology, and could improve their practice by building their own digital solutions to problems.

It is also vital to promote digital inclusion and reduce inequality in the digital sector, by engaging with disadvantaged, harder-to-reach young people who face multiple socio-economic barriers to entering the labour market.

This might include access to education and training, digital equipment and the support networks that enable young people to attend our coding clubs. Only 70% of households in Scotland have a broadband connection, below the UK average of 75%.

These figures fluctuate depending on location. Nearly 40% of homes in Glasgow do not have internet access. Despite the challenges, there are other organisations and institutions working to develop the country's digital landscape. Glasgow Science Centre and partner organisation Glasgow City of Science are leading the way in encouraging young people to delve into the digital arena.

Meanwhile, in the north of Scotland, Highlands and Islands Enterprise offered a series of computer programming workshops to young people as part of its "Our Digital Zone" roadshow.

These latest announcements from the Scottish Government and Skills Development Scotland are welcome and, when implemented, will have an overwhelmingly positive impact on the future generation of digital makers.

But we need to keep up the momentum by developing both the infrastructure and the talent to ensure Scotland remains digitally enlightened.

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