In-flight answers to the skills crisis

Opinion

In-flight answers to the skills crisis

Did April Fool’s Fool day come early? That’s the question I was asking myself when I caught sight of this story which appeared in TechWeek Europe.

So, apparently, one of the best ways to address the problem of the global tech skills crisis and how to connect people who live in different places to the problems they could solve, according to BA and the UN telecoms agency (ITU), is to put 100 Silicon Valley luminaries on a plane for 10 hours.

First off, I hope the catering is reliable because I’d hate to see the plot of Flight Into Danger (remade for laughs as Airplane!) become reality. And on the subject of catering, I hope BA has the foresight to put pizza on the menu for this flight.

Anyway, the UnGrounded project aims to get the chosen 100 to connect “the abundance of emerging STEM talent in cities around the world with civic and commercial opportunities in major tech hubs, where talent crunch is increasingly an issue”.

If I was cynical I might think it’s about working out how tech companies in the first world can get their hands on cheap labour from emerging nations to work in places like Silicon Valley.

I would be amazed, for instance, if they suggested it might make sense for tech companies that need the tech talent to make an investment of their own in the development of that talent. You know, perhaps by providing apprenticeships or scholarships.

It still strikes me as bizarre that, for the most part, the tech industry seeks to tell governments and educators what to do to provide it with a readymade pool of talent for its own benefit. Years ago, when countries like the UK had major employers in the shipyards, for instance, school leavers were taken on as apprentices and paid to learn on the job. The government didn’t have to pay for them to learn everything they needed to know before they went to the shipyard. The shipyards didn’t demand people were taught the necessary skills, such as welding for example, when they were still at school.

Yet somehow, the tech industry (and business generally for that matter) feels entitled to demand children are educated in a certain way and that they should learn certain skills. In the meantime, if it can’t get young people off the shelf to meet its demands, the tech industry feels it only right to be able to go and get them wherever it can rather than take the time to train or retrain people who have no work to solve the skills issue.

Perhaps it’s no surprise the tech industry views the skills shortage in this way. It’s a short-sighted industry itself where innovations are trumpeted to the heavens and then discarded almost as quickly. We live in an era of immediate results and short attention spans where everything is geared towards the short-term rather than the long-term.

No wonder there are some people who seriously believe putting 100 geeks on a 10 hour flight can solve deep-rooted issues that have been hurting the technology industry for some time and threaten to continue to do so for even longer. As for me, I think that if the answer is “putting 100 geeks on a 10 hour flight from San Francisco to London”, you’re probably asking the wrong question.

This was first published in April 2013

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