Careers guidance: Talking digital careers

Written by: Bernie Furey | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The huge growth in digital careers means it is vital that teachers, parents and students all understand what options are out there. School leader Bernie Furey explains some of the steps her school has taken in this regard

Do you know what a “user experience architect” is? To me it sounds like something from BBC Two’s satirical television series WA1, joining the “director of better” on the tangerine couches of Broadcasting House.

But a user experience architect is actually one of the most difficult jobs to fill in the digital sector. It is the person who plans how we interact with a website and it is a role that is quickly becoming one of the best paid and most sought after by creative and tech employers.

As assistant headteacher in charge of creativity and research at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford, this is a career opportunity I want to tell my students about. But with the digital workplace moving at such a fast pace, it is hard to keep up with the multitude of new roles.

Earlier this year my school was one of 20 in Greater Manchester and Lancashire involved in a digital skills scheme funded by local authorities. Called Digital Advantage, the aim is to open the eyes of students and teachers to roles such as user experience architect and to help young people develop the confidence and appropriate skills to get their dream job in the digital sector.

I have learned a huge amount over the past five months and a number of key lessons have stayed with me. I hope you find them useful for your school.

Broaden the knowledge of ICT teachers

Computer science staff are often the first port of call for a student wanting to find out more about becoming, for example, a mobile app developer or a game designer. Most are great at teaching the mechanics of computing – data representation, algorithms and logic.

But do computer science teachers know how coding is used in a web design studio? Are they aware of the software programmes commonly used by data science firms? Probably not. Instead it is perfectly normal for an ICT teacher to have worked in schools throughout their career having very little contact with real-world digital workplaces.

One of our own ICT teachers took part in Digital Advantage, meeting industry experts and sitting in on sessions where tech businesses set students real-life work challenges. He’s the first to admit that having this contact with industry has been a CPD opportunity for him, broadening his knowledge about the skills digital employers want from new recruits and the programmes and coding languages they use.

There are a number of different schemes that can expose teaching staff to the outside world of digital work, giving them this insider knowledge. Regional organisations that are funded to raise the profile of the digital sector or represent tech businesses are a good place to start.

In Greater Manchester we have the Sharp Project and Hive Manchester, both of which run digital skills events where teachers can network with industry. Find out about the tech industry bodies in your area and ask them about school and business partnerships.

Show high-achieving students alternative pathways

Apprenticeships are often seen as a route for less academic students who want to focus on a technical pathway. It is rare that a high-achieving student is shown anything other than the traditional A level-university trajectory.

At my school, we had a year 11 student who consistently got good grades. He’s always wanted to work in coding and the advice from his teachers and parents was to study computer science at A level and then university. But from the conversations he had with digital employers and his experience of working on live web development briefs, via the Digital Advantage scheme, his outlook has completely changed.

The feedback from industry experts was that two years of A levels and a £27,000 three-year degree in computer science wouldn’t help him become a master coder. They told him that a two-year Apprenticeship with a tech development business would help. He could start this after his GCSEs and learn everything he needs to know about coding on the job rather than via a lot of theory and exam questions. He would also get paid at the same time.

I saw a real change in this young man. His confidence levels increased and he seemed more motivated and focused than before. There was a sense of him being clear about (and in charge of) his own future and it was a pleasure to witness this development.

Work with other schools to inspire pupils en masse

We recently staged a careers conference for 200 year 10 students from 10 schools in Greater Manchester. The event was a collaboration between our school and the Comino/Ideas Foundation and around 20 digital and creative businesses were invited to speak to students about what they are looking for from new employees.

We had social media managers and 3D visualisation designers, advertising executives and software developers, all having conversations with 14 and 15-year-olds about their job aspirations.

Employers gave a series of short presentations and then students milled around, receiving one-to-one advice about the qualifications they need and the knowledge that is crucial to getting a certain role, how they should present their portfolio and what to include in their CV.

It really was wonderful for students; opening their eyes to very real opportunities. We’re hoping the businesses also see an upsurge in the quality of applicants to their Apprenticeship and trainee schemes.

This event was also invaluable for teaching staff. A number of media, ICT, art and design teachers attended from more than a dozen schools. Everyone remarked on how much they had learnt about the creative and digital industries, from the range of different jobs available, to the skills needed and the best pathways to secure these roles.

Explore how you could create a similar network of schools and hold regular events that inspire and inform students and teaching staff.

Educate parents

Our digital careers conference was such a success that we are now holding one for parents. I’d say that 80 per cent of the mums, dads and carers I speak to don’t know about the range of creative or tech sector jobs that their children could apply for when they leave school.

Research shows that young people tend to go into employment that they have a link to or knowledge of, for example their parents’ professions or careers that mum and dad have told them about.

Many parents still have misconceptions about the creative and digital sectors. They think roles are low-paid, insecure and low status compared to traditional positions such as lawyers, doctors or accountants.

The reality is that coders, programmers, UX designers and digital marketers can command equivalent salaries nowadays. Digital Advantage has some useful short films about these new opportunities and career paths.

During our forthcoming parents’ conference there will be a number of short presentations and then parents can speak to businesses direct and find out more about different career paths.

My aim is to get around 150 mums and dads together – all parents of year 9 students from schools in the North West. Their children will be selecting GCSE options later this year and now is a key time to provide inspiration and guidance so students can make informed choices, supported by their parents.

Get to know your local digital community

In most areas of the UK there are clusters of digital education groups. The problem is that the quality and availability of these clubs and camps varies hugely depending on your region. A good place to find out more about digital making opportunities for 11 to 18-year-olds, such as coding competitions, gaming schools, hack challenges and creative media camps (often held in the school holidays) is Coder Do Jo – a global network of free computer programming clubs for young people.

My school has worked with lots of these groups but I have yet to find one platform that lists everything in one place. Having a database or calendar would be brilliant for busy teaching staff and I’m sure parents would also find it helpful. Event organisers would probably see a spike in attendance as a result. This is something that regional digital skills networks or bodies representing the tech industry should pull together.

It is also worth plugging into employer-run digital initiatives for schools such as Deloitte’s TMT Predictions Schools Challenge which aims to engage sixth formers with an interest in working in the technology, media or telecoms sectors.

The UK IT industry’s skills council, the Tech Partnership, runs TechFuture Ambassadors. This programme allows schools to request the assistance of an experienced tech or digital professional from across the sector who will volunteer their time in schools to inspire young people.

The government’s Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) has 850 enterprise advisers across the country. This adviser network pairs senior business volunteers with schools to build “employer engagement plans” – basically ways of developing lasting relationships between each school and a number of businesses.

In Greater Manchester 10 of the 20 advisors are from the digital sector. If your school isn’t already working with an enterprise adviser, then contact the CEC to find out more.

Make it an organic process

At my school, we are trying to weave digital skills development into all subjects from year 7 onwards. In art, traditional drawing and painting is fine but students also learn digital art and design programmes that might be of use if they want to pursue a career in 3D art, graphics programming or virtual reality design.

In maths, teachers set online code challenges which students have to break. In English, students are asked to create digital story boards that explain a story’s narrative frame-by-frame.

These tasks all provide digital context to every day lessons, bringing the curriculum to life and often getting hard-to-engage students excited about school work.

Like all of my pointers, the nub of this last one is about linking what’s going on in the classroom with what’s going on in the digital world outside it. If you can do this successfully, as early as year 8 or 9, you will help to make the transition from school to work far less bumpy for your students.

  • Bernie Furey is assistant headteacher at St Ambrose Barlow RC High School in Salford.

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