How can we get the next generation to innovate?

Britain doesn't have the digital skills needed to meet fast-rising demand. So what can we do about it? Ex-Dyson boss Martin McCourt shares his view

The power of Britain’s economy is largely led by our heritage of innovation.

From the inventors who laid the tracks of the industrial revolution to the creator of the World Wide Web, Britain can boast some of the world’s most famous change makers.

The excellence of our workforce is reflected in the quality of our products and services. As the recession calms and we can see a future of growth, we need to ensure the next generation are ready: to innovate, to grow the economy, to excel.

With more than a business born every minute in 2014, and a first quarter this year which promises even more of 2015, small businesses are a key leader of growth. And as many of you will know, there is nowhere where the quality of the workforce is felt as keenly as in a small business.

In order to thrive, every employee of a small business needs to pull their weight and arrive with a skillset which equips them to do their job well.

And yet the figures are alarming: a recent report by O2 has suggested that Britain will need 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet the rising demand from employers between 2013 and 2017. What are we doing to ensure this workforce is ready?

The importance of Maths and Physics

An ill-prepared workforce is as damaging to businesses as it is to young people. Young people are frustrated that they cannot provide what is expected of them, while businesses are seeking something that isn’t there. By addressing this issue, we are encouraging our workforce to be the best for our businesses – and our businesses to be the best for the economy.

For the benefit of our economy as well as the wellbeing of our youngsters, we need to ensure that they are able to keep their options open. With a rise in the need for digital skills, Maths and Physics have never been so necessary to our future workforce, and yet many of them are ignorant of what careers are open to those who study these subjects.

Do our 14-year-olds realise that Maths will help them design the next best-selling app? Or that studying Physics could be the first step towards a successful career as a music producer?

We need to change the perception of Maths and Physics. The common perception of these as ‘elite’ subjects, which are both ‘difficult’ and ‘boring’, is not a worldwide problem – it’s far less common in places like China. There, the role of these subjects in driving economic growth and in providing satisfying and prosperous careers is better understood, and as a result young people are motivated to study these subjects which are ‘exciting’ and ‘life-changing’.

In an educational environment where discouragement is all too common, I want us to change our tune to one of encouragement. Rather than prescribing Maths and Physics as a necessary evil, we can open the eyes of our young people to the exciting careers they could be exploring with those skills. We need to foster encouragement inside and out of the classroom.

Getting young people to innovate

Through the Your Life campaign, we’re doing just that. We are putting schoolchildren in touch with young and exciting ambassadors who can inspire them with their stories. They can now meet a young woman who helped design the Shard, or a young man who is working on the Mars rover – Roma Agrawal and Ben Boyes are just two of our ambassadors, living proof of the exciting careers which studying Maths and Physics can lead to.

By making the applications of Maths and Physics ‘real’ to young people, we will get them thinking innovatively for themselves. We want to point a spotlight on the outcomes of their schoolwork, opening their eyes to the possibilities of the world, so their choices at school don’t limit, but rather broaden, their choices later in life.

We can’t afford for our messages to young people to be lost. We must engage with them in a language they understand, on platforms they used, and using role models they can relate to.

We want to create a generation of skilled workers who will drive growth. By changing the way we engage with young people – by encouraging and inspiring them – we can convince them that they can achieve anything. And that is how we can create the next generation of innovators.

Martin McCourt is director of Montagu Private Equity and former global CEO of Dyson. He is on the board of the Your Life campaign.

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  1. This is certainly going to take some doing! The approach to this at school has een wrong for a long time, as has pretty much everything in the educational system.

    Instead of preparing schoolchildren to work toward when they have to find an employer to work for, the strategy ought to be innovation and entrepreneurship. I’m sure that this adjustment alone would make a huge improvement within one generation.

    Nathan.