Cutting Room: Are you smarter than a 15-year-old?


 Samantha Tomaszczyk says the UK has to equip ‘millennials’ with the skills needed to make money-making ideas a reality

There’s nothing like a technology conference to remind you of how fast the world is changing. Telefónica’s ‘Millennials Summit’ a few weeks ago did just that, with O2’s parent company revealing a quarter of 18- to 30-year-olds believe an education in technology is crucial to success. Generation Y, as millennials are also known, place tech skills as more important than an education in economics or science.

As a millennial myself, I must agree. Even some jobs in journalism now call for “proficiency in [programming language] HTML” as every (successful) print publication has a website. But my agreement is accompanied by concern – as a technology skills gap still seems to exist in the UK.

First, some anecdotal evidence. When I was in secondary school (and, at 24, we’re only talking about eight years ago) we had one hour of ICT every fortnight. In other words, two per cent of the total time we spent in school was in front of a computer. As for the content of lessons, it was more Word and Excel than programming or web design.

And it is not just me. Research firm OnePoll this month found that just a fifth of British workers consider themselves “adequately skilled” to embrace digital innovations and technology in the workplace. This was even true of the millennials O2 spoke about – with 10 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds saying they didn’t feel up to date with the latest advancements. One in five (21 per cent) of this age group said they would try to start a tech or digital venture if they could develop the relevant skills. This shows that we have ideas and impetus, but lack the skills to turn our dreams into reality.

For this reason it’s reassuring to see a multinational corporation doing something about the digital skills gap. Telefónica chief operating officer José María Álvarez-Pallete (pictured) summed it up when he said: “Helping the transition from school to employment – this is what is expected of us as a leading operator.”

The company’s ‘Think Big Schools’ initiative, which began in the UK, places technology experts in secondary schools and colleges during two-day workshops aimed at teaching pupils how to code. The company also gives out money to students with bright ideas through the programme.

Its Wayra academy, which it claims is the largest start-up accelerator in the world, has been set up with the aim of finding the next app that will grab mass-market attention. Visiting the academy, one of the things which struck me was how young most of the entrepreneurs were.

Indeed, at a BYOD conference this month attendees were told: “You, technology companies, are not worried about competing with Microsoft or Google any more – you are worried about being overtaken by a teenager who is creating software in his bedroom”.

One obvious example is Nick D’Aloisio, who aged 15 came up with the idea for Summly, an application which summarises web articles into three concise paragraphs, making them easier to read on a smartphone. In March, he sold it to Yahoo for a reported £20 million.

Every generation knows the future of the world is in the hands of its children – but this has never been more true than today. Whether the UK maintains its position as one of the richest countries in the world (we are eighth) depends largely on whether we equip millennials with the skills required to put their money making ideas into practice.