How do we get more young people to embark on a career in science, technology, engineering or maths? It’s a question perplexing industry and government alike in the UK, where more than two-thirds of businesses are reporting unfilled digital skills vacancies. 

The same study finds less than a third (31%) are confident that the UK business community will be able to access the digital skills they need in the next three to five years. Currently, the UK is estimated to be losing out on £63 billion a year as companies struggle to find people with digital skills, and there simply aren’t enough people with the required STEM skills to fill the roles needed to power the future growth of the UK’s digital economy. 

Finding a solution to this problem will be crucial. Firing up enthusiasm among young people, with the help of business and the education system, is an obvious solution.  

That’s what happened this November, when more than 650 young tech fans gathered in Manchester to immerse themselves in a week of coding and AI. 

Taking on the challenge

Over five days, the Digital Explorers event – an initiative by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) UK in partnership with EDT (Engineering Development Trust) – gave 12- to 18-year-olds the chance to get hands-on with AI and creative with coding.

The challenges were varied, but real-world problem-solving, development of transferable skills, creativity and teamwork were at the heart of a packed programme in the city’s historic Victoria Warehouse.

With a nod to the past but a clear link to cybersecurity, the youngest students (aged 12-14) were asked to decipher secret instructions via QR codes and translate them into Morse code, building a simple circuit and torch to transmit the messages. 

A clear favourite was an AI challenge to programme a golf ball-sized robot to follow optimum routes, using photonics (light generation). The day’s “Dragons’ Den” saw teams working against the clock to redesign an everyday product, using digital technology, then present a business pitch. Creative solutions included shopping drones, an eco-bin, a high-tech mug that reminds people with Alzheimer’s to drink, and a surprising number of digitally controlled beds.

Plugging the gap

At the heart of the programme were the volunteers from industry – those already in STEM workplaces – that stepped up to make the event a memorable experience and provide that crucial real-life experience. 

A hundred volunteers from TCS teamed up with volunteers from one of its largest UK clients, Lloyds Banking Group, to engage the teenagers, mainly from Greater Manchester.

It wasn’t all about digital skills. The young people that took part had the opportunity to ask those already in the technology business some hard-hitting questions, including, “Who motivated you to get into tech?” and “Do you enjoy your job or are you in it for the money?”

Older students, some already at sixth-form level, were mentored through more career-based activities, job application and networking skills.

The chance to interact with technology professionals in “short, sharp, practical sessions” was particularly valuable to younger teenagers, said Phil Jones, careers co-ordinator at Wilmslow High School: “It’s important to try to excite students about science and technology before year nine, before they start limiting their own options – and are generally more enthusiastic anyway,” he said. “A free, local opportunity like this is very welcome.”

Localness was definitely a factor for Lloyds Bank “digital champion” Chris Watkinson, a volunteer presenter on the programme: “It’s great to have children from different backgrounds here. If you’re from rural Lancashire with no big tech companies on the doorstep, it’s important to find out what opportunities are available to you, here in Manchester and beyond.”

Meeting real needs

This Digital Explorers event is just one part of TCS UK & Ireland’s much wider digital IT skills outreach. The programme has already been rolled out to students in Liverpool, Bristol, London, Peterborough, Birmingham and Edinburgh. Feedback from those events has been hugely positive, with 75% of the students participating saying they’d be more likely to consider a career in the digital or technology sector after their TCS Digital Explorers experience. 

“It might look like fun,” said Julie Feest, EDT chief executive. “But it’s meeting real business needs and reaching a wide range of students.”