Learn to code: the Technological Revolution

Can I shock you? The North doesn’t end at Manchester and Leeds. For all the bluff and bluster of a ‘northern powerhouse’ we heard when the Tories at least pretended to care, the investment mainly fell around those two main cities. It is true, they are seeing growth, prosperity and attracting young professionals and graduates to the city as businesses prosper and companies choose to open up northern hubs. However, the more rural areas in the North West (particularly West Cumbria) and the North East are seeing their regions stagnate and more alarmingly an exodus of young people who see no future in the area.

According to a recent BBC News study it is estimated that the under 30s population of these regions will significantly reduce over the next 20 years. 3 of the top 5 likely to be worst affected are from West Cumbria, with Copeland anticipated to see a 14% reduction in people under the age of 30. The North East doesn’t fair much better with 4 of the top 10 also from that region, the main county of Northumberland is expected to see the biggest drop of 11%. 

When you look at the common factor in all these regions it is no surprise that former industrial heartlands such as Redcar, Hartlepool and Copeland/Allerdale have a higher rate of youth and adult unemployment resulting in many young people to move away for university and never return. What is most concerning about all this is that there is no real long-term strategy in place to tackle the impending youth deficit, at least not from the two main parties. A reduction in people of working age of this size would also have a significant impact on the local economies of these areas a whole.

As always, the Lib Dems do things differently, and do it better. So why stop now? I propose we look to focus on inspiring investment and increased training for the digital economy, not just by public spending investment but encouraging local and national businesses to increase the number of training schemes and digital apprenticeships in rural areas, particularly those with poorer transport links. If we follow the excellent example set by Recode UK, a free coding training scheme in Bolton which is a joint supported venture by the local JCP and Telecom UK. By championing the private and public sector to educate young people in the tools for the future economy in these regions and help increase social mobility the long term impact will see the wider economy and businesses prosper as well.

It isn’t just enough to do training alone; the government also needs to act to encourage businesses in the regions to look more to the internet of things and increasing their own digital presence whilst helping to create jobs. This could be done by offering tax incentives and financial support to SMEs who may not currently have the capacity or the capabilities to invest in unqualified staff. In my newly adopted home of Manchester there are dedicated apprenticeship schemes such as the Juice Academy which are helping create a production line of digital savvy professionals and provide alternatives to university which are helping to plug the skills gap which is growing in the industry.

Jo Swinson promised to harness the technological revolution during her leadership campaign, now is the time for the party to show its progressive credentials and use our re-emerging popularity to lead from the front whilst the old two parties fight out their polarising left/right ideological battles and cling to power. 

* Eugene Henry is a member of the Liberal Democrats based in Salford, Greater Manchester. He works in the digital sector.

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11 Comments

  • Interesting article, Eugene.

  • Eugene, this is really interesting and great thinking. Are you developing it into party policy? It would be great if we could get something solid on this into the manifesto for an early election.

  • Peter Martin 3rd Aug '19 - 8:19am

    @ Eugene Henry,

    Yes it’s a good article. The way I would put it is that in any currency union there is a natural tendency for money to gravitate to other money. In the UK we see the South East of England do relatively well at the same time we see the symptoms of decline that you describe in the peripheral regions. In the eurozone we see the same effect with decline in Greece, Italy and southern Spain. Other parts, notwithstanding their more recent problems, like Germany and Holland do much better. This is is a simple lesson they need to learn too.

    The role of central government is to level out the economy using fiscal equalisation to counter the effects of the ‘gravitation’. This means they spend more money where it is needed to be spent and less where it might just add to already high inflationary problems. For example spending more in the SE to fix traffic congestion might appear to be a solution but it just pumps up the SE economy with even more inflationary pressures. This attracts more people who then create more traffic, also needing more schools and hospitals.

    Better to spend it in West Cumbria and try to keep people where they are.

  • Peter Davies 3rd Aug '19 - 9:47am

    Your example of Recode is very much a local initiative. Government (by which you mean UK government) is incapable even of assessing whether such ideas are worth funding. They should as Peter Martin suggests be using fiscal equalisation and producing a fair funding formula for local (and national and regional) governments and let them work out how to revive their local economies.

  • Nonconformistradical 3rd Aug '19 - 10:01am

    Eugene – this is fine in principle but what about career paths? Where – in terms of ‘upwards’ – do you expect an army of coders to go?

    I ask because all the talk in the media is about learning to code and never about learning to analyse needs and problems – which has to be done first if the job is going to be done properly.

    Or is all the enouragement to become a coder really designed to produce an ever increasing army of coders on ever decreasing pay as their numbers increase (a bit like Uber taxi drivers)?

    (I’m trying to play devil’s advocate here)

  • Good thinking Eugene. The great thing about coding is that it’s the kind of job that can, and often is, done remotely.
    @Nonconformist, I don’t think we’re at risk of having too many coders in the UK. If anything, the risk comes from outsourcing of large coding project to staff around the world, who might be cheaper, but most importantly, they are able. It’s a fair point about having people with the skills to analyse need and understand problems, but I think the issue Eugene wants to address is that there are a lot of SMEs that don’t know where to start, and many more that don’t realise there is something to start.

    Ideally, learning to code would come with training in associated skills, but if people are trained in collaboration with real businesses in supported schemes, that’s the kind of thing that I would happen.

  • @Nonconformistradical – “Eugene – this is fine in principle but what about career paths?”
    Having a career in IT spanning 40+ years, something I’ve learnt is that a “career path” is more about the creation of a historical narrative, that shows how the experience from one job lead to the next etc. and how this is relevant to the current job interview – the job I do now didn’t really exist when I studied for my degree…

    I think “career path” planning (in its traditional climb the organisation sense) largely died in the 1980’s, aided and abetted by management thinkers such as Charles Handy, Tom Peters etc.

  • Dilettante Eye 4th Aug '19 - 9:31am

    Eugene

    Good article and I agree that Recode UK based in Bolton is an excellent example of what is needed.

    Getting folk interested in coding and just ‘dipping their toe’ into a bit of HTML, Basic, C+ or Java is the first hurdle. People tend to have an irrational fear computers and worry that ‘they will break something’.

    The beauty of these kinds of local coding ‘academies’, is the peer support. It’s amazing how a few lines of code which after a bit of help de-bugging, can turn a frightened novice, into a confident and even enthusiastic coder.

    A coder never forgets the rush of excitement when they have ‘tamed’ their computer, and got it to write their first ((( Hello World ))) on the screen?

    I also recommend young (and maybe not so young) people look out for their local Hackspace, for their first steps into learning coding, 3D printing and basic robotics.
    I recommend Leigh Hackspace and Manchester Hackspace who will look after you if you just give them a chance to help you.?

    Also coding is not an end in itself. In the same way that people study French or Psychology, it’s about having an extra skill, and a tool to help you do other professions smarter. It’s astonishing when you learn a few lines of code, and how you can import live streaming data into a boring Excel spreadsheet turning it into a live shares trading utility.

    The short response about learning to code, is just try it ! you might find that you are good at it.

    I notice even Paul Walter is now teaching old folk how to code? If ‘owd Walter’ can get coding !! I’m pretty sure so can you?

    If ‘owd Walter’ can get coding !! so can you? 

  • Peter Watson 4th Aug '19 - 1:59pm

    @Dilettante Eye “Getting folk interested in coding and just ‘dipping their toe’ into a bit of HTML, Basic, C+ or Java is the first hurdle.”
    I think that is a very important point. I’m more than a little sceptical of emphasising a need for people to be able to code as an end in itself.
    In the workplace, the nature of programming means that a lot of work is readily outsourced to high-skill low-wage economies in India and Eastern Europe so being able to string together a few lines of code is no guarantee of employability.
    I feel that the value and opportunities will increasingly be not in the ability to code per se but in being close to the end-user/customer, having useful non-IT experience and domain knowledge, having an idea for an application, creating content, etc. and starting much higher up the technology stack than low-level coding. This may require some high-level coding/scripting or it might only require use of existing platforms that hide all that. If I had a brilliant idea for making money from a website I would not start with a text editor and a knowledge of HTML tags, in much the same way that if I wanted to become a taxi driver I would not start by designing and building a car engine from scratch.
    To me it seems that the priorities should be eliminating any “fear” of IT, helping people to identify how their experiences and knowledge can be used to produce novel solutions and content, and introducing them to the people / technologies / platforms that can realise this. Being able to code may or may not be an important part of this.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Aug '19 - 4:13pm

    Is it time to accept that parts of our country are going to suffer from internal migration and explore the possibilities? Instead of competing with the city regions, they can offer a simpler, more relaxed way of life that will attract many. If this is combined with an environmental awareness and a lower cost of living, it could be tempting to many, not least those retiring and downsizing.

  • James Belchamber 5th Aug '19 - 11:22am

    I’ve thought for a long time that the party needs better digital policy, so I’ve been collecting up people who agree with me with a view to setting up an organisation that champions it. If you’re interested then please join (with the full name and email address you signed up to the Lib Dems with) here:

    https://talk.libdemdigital.org.uk/

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