Jenny Marra MSP :  Developing Skills for Scotland's Digital Economy

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate


3 April 2014

As the minister said, the digital and ICT sector is a thriving and growing part of Scotland’s economy.

It already contributes 3 per cent of our economy, employs more than 73,000 people and adds value of £3 billion.

As a co-convener of the cross-party group on video games technology and a native of Dundee, where a great deal of digital jobs are based and which is home to one of Scotland’s leading ICT educational institutions in the University of Abertay, I see at first hand how Scotland takes a leading role in ICT and digital economy development and how we shape and apply evolving technology across sectors and industry and around the world.

It is always a great source of pride to me every time that I hear the game Minecraft mentioned, especially on Radio 2.

It is an international hit that was made in 4J Studios in Dundee by former NCR employees and Dundee natives.

Such success in our digital industries is a great source of pride in my home city and in Scotland.

Whether it be in using technology to find better treatments for cancer or in creating the latest video game sensations, such as Minecraft, Scotland is often at the fore.

It is clear that the ICT and digital sector will become an even more important part of Scotland’s economy in the future, as the minister said.

Such is the pace and scale of innovation that many of the jobs that those who are studying ICT courses at Abertay University and around Scotland will do in 20 years’ time have not even been thought of or created yet, but that is a challenge that we must meet.

It is paramount that, as the industry grows, we identify, nurture and promote the talent of our young people to drive the change in coming generations.

We have the expertise and the opportunity at our fingertips, and we have a responsibility to ensure that our digital sector remains competitive and sustainable.

That effort begins early.

In our schools, we must work with young people to promote ICT courses as attractive and exciting to do, as I said in my intervention on the minister.

It is remarkable that, when the industry has such potential, the number of young people taking ICT courses to standard grade level in schools fell by more than a quarter in the four years to 2012.

There was an associated fall of 17 per cent in the uptake of intermediate 1 courses.

I was pleased to hear that the minister understands and has noted those figures and that she is prepared to take action.

We need to address the situation quickly, not least because the industry’s workforce is ageing.

The number of 16 to 24-year-olds who work in the digital sector is half the figures in other occupations, which is surprising given that we associate the industry with young people.

The demand for people to be employed in digital and ICT roles is forecast conservatively to rise by 15 per cent to 84,000 by 2020, so we must generate the necessary interest and skills among our young people to fill the gap.

ICT in schools should be exciting and inspiring, and it should use the latest technology, as Patrick Harvie pointed out.

It should show young people the potential of learning the skills to participate and develop in the sector.

A constant focus is required to ensure that teachers are trained to do the job.

I welcome what the minister said about Dr Allan’s commitment on teacher training.

We must invest in our classrooms and link up with businesses and the technology sector, to show young people the possibilities of pursuing a career in ICT.

I am sure that Angela Constance agrees that many of the recommendations in the interim Wood report go some way towards matching those aspirations.

According to the Scottish Government’s figures, the number of teachers who have computer studies as their primary subject fell by nearly 14 per cent between 2008 and 2012.

If we look at the next step, in further education, we see that the reality does not match the Government’s ambition.

Across further education, the number of students undertaking a computer-related course fell from 63,000 in 2005-06 to 42,000—nearly 43,000—in 2010-11.

The number of all students undertaking a computer science course fell by nearly 13 per cent.

We know from previous debates that college ICT courses have been cut, so I would welcome a response from the minister about the action that the Government is taking to bolster technology courses in schools and further education in order to reverse the downward trend of provision and meet the skills gap.

One major concern that is cited in the investment plan is the number of women who are employed in the digital industry.

The minister also addressed that.

The plan notes that female participation fell by 13 per cent over the decade to 2012.

We have a significant role to play in addressing that.

We must get better at promoting women in industry, not least through modern apprenticeships.

Figures from Skills Development Scotland show that, in 2012-13, only 16 per cent of ICT modern apprenticeship starts were women and that women comprised only 15 per cent of modern apprenticeship achievements for the same year.

What steps is the minister taking to improve the modern apprenticeship scheme to ensure that there is greater parity between men and women?

We face a skills shortage in one of the most exciting, rapidly developing and promising industries in Scotland.

The facts that I have outlined on falling uptake and fewer courses in colleges, fewer teachers in schools and gender disparity in modern apprenticeships demand action from the Government if we are to mitigate the issues and grow our digital economy to its full potential.

The potential for Scotland’s economy and a whole generation of young people to innovate, create and build fulfilling and exciting international careers is substantial, but in order to capture that and make it a reality, the Government must commit to action across our entire education sector to nurture and grow the skills.

I move amendment S4M-09575.1, to insert at end:

“, and notes that the investment plan calls for adequate teaching capacity in schools, colleges and universities and to ensure that more college and university places are available to meet an increased demand”.


Later in the debate....

Jenny Marra: I welcome Gavin Brown’s final comments and add my support for the suggestion that the Scottish Government look into the issue as a matter of priority.

The debate has been constructive and interesting. It has focused on a wide range of issues.

We agree that the digital economy is a thriving and essential part of Scotland’s economy, but the main theme that has been carried throughout the debate is that we could do a bit more to encourage it, nurture it and help it to grow into the industry that we want it to be.

Chief among the points that have been raised is the need to promote the right skills in the right people to support future growth and investment.

The Scottish Government obviously has a significant role to play in that through Skills Development Scotland.

The investment plan ought to be used as intended: as a pulse check for the industry and its key partners to inform future policy developments in areas where we can make improvements.

Labour has raised areas where we believe that improvements can be made: our education system—our schools and colleges—and modern apprenticeships.

As we have heard from several members, we have fewer teachers in our schools who have ICT as their main subject and, as Gavin Brown highlighted, there is a concern that there might be no ICT provision in some schools.

As we know, college courses have been cut and there is less uptake of the courses that remain.

We also know—and the minister acknowledged—that fewer women are engaging in our digital economy.

That could be improved, particularly through our modern apprenticeship scheme.

There is growing demand for skilled labour in the sector, with up to 11,000 jobs per year.

To fill them, we must be proactive in every part of our education system, encouraging and inspiring young people to enter the industry.

The Government has committed to using £12 million of Barnett consequentials to implement the Wood commission’s recommendations and I am certain that that will provide us with an opportunity to work with businesses, local authorities, colleges and schools to develop digital skills and link opportunities with our young people.

Some interesting and useful speeches were made in the debate.

Mary Scanlon pointed to research from the Prince’s Trust that said that 10 per cent of young people feel out of their depth using computers to prepare their CVs.

She said that that is an equalities issue.

I thoroughly agree with that.

It is also a poverty issue and an issue of digital exclusion, which my colleague James Kelly touched on.

I would very much like to hear something on digital exclusion in the minister’s closing remarks.

It is a particular problem in my home city of Dundee, and it is a problem not only for the industry.

We know that digital exclusion results in families paying more on their weekly and monthly bills and has all sorts of impacts on our communities.

James Kelly said that we must improve our digital connectivity throughout Scotland and remarked on the improvements that Glasgow is making as it produces more wi-fi hotspots.

However, we all know that a marked improvement in 3G coverage and wi-fi could be made throughout Scotland.

Fiona McLeod: I agree with Ms Marra’s comments about digital exclusion in relation to hardware. Is she aware of the work by the Carnegie UK Trust that indicates that, once we give people the hardware, we need to ensure that they want to connect?

Jenny Marra: I agree with that to some extent, but there is an issue with coverage in some areas.

There is also an issue about access to hardware and the cost of connecting. Perhaps that is fodder for another debate.

Liam McArthur mentioned another important point that the Prince’s Trust made.

STEM literacy is important not just for the ICT industry, but for our schools and the whole future generation.

Every time I speak to young people, I find out that they are taking fewer science and language courses.

It must be a concern that there are no compulsory measures in place to ensure that our next generation is literate in those subjects.

I was not surprised that Patrick Harvie made one of the most articulate speeches in the debate.

He focused on digital rights, which, again, is perhaps a subject for another debate, but it is certainly a concept that Labour would be interested in exploring.

I welcome the motion that was passed in the European Parliament today.

The debate has been very constructive and positive.

I welcome the investment that the Government has made in our digital economy and the commitment to it that it has announced today.

The investment plan identifies an emerging skills gap, which should and could be filled.

Jobs in our digital economy are among the most rewarding and exciting jobs for our young people—indeed, for everyone.

As the industry continues to develop, I am certain that we can work together to build the necessary skills in our young people to make it as profitable and rewarding for our country as possible.

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