The web industry is growing fast: no-one can dispute that. But what is being disputed within the industry and in the media is whether or not there are enough skilled people to fill the jobs that are being created.
The existence of a skills gap is something that's interpreted differently by different analysts: some point to high levels of unemployment and the fact that there are plenty of workers available to fill jobs, while others argue that it's not just any old workers that are needed to fill the high-skill jobs in the web industry, but skilled individuals. Sites like the Huffington Post have reported extensively on the nature of the skills gap and how it can be addressed. Some estimates paint a more worrying picture, estimating that there will be a shortfall of a million skilled coders in the US by 2020.
But whether or not the skills gap represents a crisis, there's one thing you can't argue about: today's kids and young people will need a skill set that hasn't traditionally been taught in school or college, and what's more the skills they're learning now may be at least partially obsolete by the time they enter the jobs market. If today's kids are going to be filling the high skilled development jobs of the future they don't just need to know how to use a computer or even how to write HTML: they need a deeper understanding of how computers work and a lack of fear when it comes to working with new technologies and trying new ideas.
The education system is working hard to catch up: in the UK, ICT has been replaced by a new flexible Computing curriculum with less focus on word processing or creating Powerpoint presentations and more on code. In the USA school districts are attempting to catch up, but there is evidence that Computing isn't consistently being given the emphasis it might be. Even with an evolving curriculum, teachers, particularly at Primary or Elementary level, can find teaching computing daunting, as it's often not part of their skill set.
So what can experienced web professionals do to help address this and reduce the risk of not being able to fill jobs in decades to come? In this article I'll examine some of the initiatives taking place, and suggest why and how you can help to educate the next generation of web professionals.
Do Kids Really Need You?
It's safe to say that a huge proportion of kids and young people love computers, and they don't just want to use them passively. The immense success of MInecraft and the popularity of using it in creative ways shows that there is an appetite for doing something more with a computer than passively following the rules and storyline of a game.
But Minecraft doesn't teach all of the skills people need to pursue a successful career in the web industry. It's not just people who can sit at a computer for hours and produce code that will be increasingly needed, but also experts in human machine interaction as UX and UI become more important, and people whose creativity means they can invent future technologies and solve problems we haven't even come across yet.
Students can learn some of these skills in other ways: for example creativity can be applied across the curriculum and an understanding of UX can come from studying Psychology or Ergonomics. But learning to code can help kids with problem solving skills, understanding of basic concepts, the ability to identify why something isn't working and fix it, and developing their ideas. Importantly it also helps them lose any fear they might have of doing more than just using a computer as a tool.
Most people who work in the web industry will tell you a personal story of how they dabbled with computers at a young age. If they're of a certain age, they'll also tell you that this was frowned upon by adults who didn't 'get it'. Personally I used to spend my lunch breaks in the computer room at school learning how to program my own games using BASIC (and playing other students' games too, saved on floppy disk). My teachers thought this was a waste of time so I would tell them I'd spent the hour at the dance club. I think the way I chose to spend my time turned out to be more useful!
An interest in computing certainly isn't frowned upon by teachers these days, but sometimes it's not understood: most teachers have a background in non-technical subjects (especially at Elementary level), and may not have an intuitive grasp of what their students are doing and why it excites them so much. Which is where people from outside the education system—professionals—come in.
What's In It For You?
There are a variety of ways that people with coding and/or web design and development experience can get involved in helping kids and young people learn key skills, but before I go into those, let's take a look at the benefits.
- It's fun. Taking part in something like a Code Club or a Coder Dojo takes you away from your desk and gives you a chance to do something different. Working with kids who are so motivated by the subject is lots of fun.
- It consolidates your skills. If you're passing your own skills on to an audience, it makes you reflect on what you do and why. It also helps you identify any bad practices you might have picked up over the years and correct those.
- You learn from it. I've been running a Code Club for a year now and it's prompted me to learn about coding languages that I hadn't worked with before, so that I can support the kids.
- It's inspiring. Working with kids is completely different from working with adults. Their enthusiasm, creativity and refusal to be constrained can be quite energising and make you approach your work in new ways.
- It's an investment in the future. The more of us get involved in passing on skills to young people, the more skilled people there will be to work alongside us in the future. Don't think of them as the people who'll be snapping at your heels in ten years' time: think of them as future coworkers or employees.
- It's great PR. If you run an agency or other business, having a public involvement in educating kids and young people helps you engage with the local community and gives potential clients and employees a positive impression of the way you work.
- It can motivate staff. If you employ people with technical skills, giving them time to get involved in Code Clubs or similar will help motivate them and increase employee loyalty.
Personally I run a Code Club once a week and enjoy the fact that it gets me away from my desk and into a completely different environment. I enjoy working alongside the teachers and seeing the moment when a student suddenly grasps a new concept or creates something they never thought they could.
How to Get Involved
There are a few organisations that exist to link experienced adults with kids and young people who want to learn. Let's take a look at some of them: Code Club, Hour of Code, CoderDojo and Young Rewired State.
Code Club links volunteers with kids who want to learn code. It's aimed at 9 to 11 year olds and most of its clubs are run in primary schools. It started in the UK but is expanding internationally.
You can either sign up to run a club at a venue you've already identified (your local school or community centre, for example), or you can register to volunteer and be matched with a school or venue that's looking for someone.
As the clubs normally take place in schools, you won't need to find a venue or audience, and you'll work alongside a teacher, meaning you don't need to worry about behavior or any of the non-coding aspects of the club.
Erietta is a Code Club volunteer who really enjoys getting involved:
"As a programmer, I am very enthusiastic in both learning more myself, and teaching others. Code Club provides me with a way to share my knowledge, and it’s a great chance to do something different and break the daily routine. Plus it may make more people interested in programming, which is something the field needs!"
All of the lesson materials are provided: these cover Scratch, HTML and CSS, and Python. There is flexibility though, and plenty of Code Club leaders also teach the kids about their own areas of expertise.
Hour of Code
The Hour of Code initiative was established in the USA in 2013 with the goal of making computer science available to more schools, with a specific focus on increasing women's and ethnic minority participation. It has support from some of the biggest US tech firms, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, as well as an advisory team made up of education experts from universities and other organizations.
A lot of the resources on the Hour of Code website are targeted at teachers, providing them with the tools to run coding session with their students, but there are also opportunities for people who aren't teachers. You can teach the introductory course as a volunteer, but unlike Code Club you'll have to do most of the work yourself: getting it off the ground, finding a venue and publicising your course to students. The lesson materials are all provided.
If you don't have time to get involved to such an extent, you can help by adding tips to the online tutorials, which is something that can take as little as 10 minutes.
Coder Dojo is a network of free computer programming clubs with a global reach. Its audience is young people aged between seven and 17, and it covers a wide range of topics including web design and development.
Volunteers are called Coder Dojo Champions, and they take responsibility for setting up, running and maintaining a club (or Dojo). You don't have to do all the teaching yourself: you can bring other volunteers in to help. You'll have to find a venue and publicise the Dojo yourself, but you do get support from the Coder Dojo team.
If you aren't ready to commit to running a Dojo yourself, you can register as a volunteer and help out at an existing Dojo, which is a great way to add as many skilled professionals as possible to each Dojo and offer learning on more topics.
Young Rewired State
Young Rewired State is a movement aimed at 'digital makers' aged 18 and under. It runs regular events (called Hyperlocal) in local communities as well as annual events such as the week long Festival of Code, which takes place in the UK and brings young coders together from across the UK and internationally to work in teams and compete against each other.
Chloe Gutteridge is just one of many young people who's benefited from YRS:
"YRS has been a great help in me learning to code. I learnt more in the first 5 days of their Festival of Code than I had in the two years of computing lessons I'd had previously. I can’t wait until the Festival this summer!"
YRS is less formal in its approach than other initiatives: instead of having lesson plans or a curriculum, it brings young people together and encourages them to work on their own projects together or explore languages or technologies as a group.
A number of Hyperlocal groups are run by digital agencies at the weekend, so this is a great way to get involved if you run or work for an agency that wants to help develop young coders.
If you're outside the UK, you can get involved via the Everywhere initiative, which takes place online and via weekend events in cities like New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Kosovo and Singapore.
Learning to code and to design and develop for the web is lots of fun, and it's going to be an increasingly useful skill for young people as more quality job opportunities are created in the years and decades to come. By getting involved in passing on your skills to the next generation you not only get a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment right now, but you know you've helped invest in the future of the industry.
There are plenty of organisations and initiatives around the world that you can get involved in as a volunteer: so what's stopping you?
Image credits: Code Club/Chocolate Films Ltd, Young Rewired State.