By Scott Campbell
Kate Kerr didn’t necessarily set out to have a tech career, but she’s happy that after all the twists and turns to get there, it led her to exactly where she is now.
“I studied psychology, and my profession now is research within the tech space,” said Kerr, senior lead researcher at Monzo Bank in the UK and a board trustee at The Spectris Foundation, which provides grants to give access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education globally, to some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities. “I stumbled into tech not really knowing how to connect what I’d studied with all the different roles I could go on to do.”
Today, Kerr recognizes the importance of exposing students of all ages to technology—and the breadth of potential careers in tech—as it is critical to developing the next generation of tech workers, especially young girls and those from underrepresented cultures in the industry. It’s one reason The Spectris Foundation is a supporter of organizations like CompTIA Spark. “I don’t want people to have to rely on finding a tech career by chance. We need to bridge their interest in tech with real opportunities to fill that gap,” she said.
Help Wanted: More Confident, Competent Tech Workers
Of course, supporting tech education programs accomplishes more than attracting future tech workers—it also instills confidence and soft skills that help young people strive for more than what they thought they could even do.
“I think this is really important,” said Kerr. “You need hard skills but also soft skills like problem-solving to build confidence. That’s where I think The Spectris Foundation can help and why programs like CompTIA Spark are so helpful. Tech is not just coding. It’s helping you grow the skills you need to be successful. When you start out, you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s about opening up the space to more people and showing them what opportunities there are and how to get there.”
Initiatives, either in school or out of school, that help people develop a wide variety of skills that complement each other in real-world environments are important and deserve increased attention, added Rebecca Levy, foundation director at Spectris Foundation.
“I think too many people think if they take a physics course, they can only go down that career avenue. Or if they want a math degree, they only need math skills. There’s a piece missing, and that’s knowing what academic skills and soft skills are needed to enhance the overall experience,” Levy said.
Kerr said that the mission of The Spectris Foundation is to provide equal opportunities for science, technology and math (STEM) education. “As a female in tech, I am very passionate about that. Only about 30% of tech roles are filled by women, and there are more drastic drops in computer science and engineering,” she said.
Modern Programs Have Flexible, Innovative Approaches
"The best programs to attract and develop young people into tech should also include more than traditional textbook learning," Kerr said. For example, project-based learning, including hands-on demonstrations and real-world examples of technology in practice, helps students understand how technology works and how it delivers results.
Tech education can be challenging if the curriculum doesn’t keep pace with the rapid pace of tech innovation. “I think the biggest frustration I found was how outdated the skills I was learning at the time and how they were applied in the real world,” Kerr said. “The world changes quickly, and tech education is absolutely not changing quickly enough.”
To obtain the latest tech knowledge and soft skills necessary to advance, Kerr started networking with other tech professionals, attending industry events—and asking lots of questions.
“People learn from real-life role models. I was learning and connecting those dots,” she said. “We should be doing the roles, living the roles in an educational setting. We need to make sure what you learn, you can do it in real life—and that goes back to problem-solving and having the resilience to solve the problem.”
For example, one much-valued skill of project-based learning is figuring out why something didn’t work—and how to correct it.
“It’s important to learn how to fail and how to respond when you get things wrong. You don’t get that by reading a book,” Kerr said. “It goes back to having a problem-solving mindset, and when you can fail in a safe space and pick yourself up, that’s one of the big benefits of hands-on learning.”
Why Support Tech Learning Programs?
"Supporting initiatives like CompTIA Spark helps organizations fulfill goals that they may not have the resources to achieve themselves," Levy said.
“We have fabulous people, but we are not experts in tech education for young people,” she said. “We want to serve underprivileged students in deprived areas. How many students are being helped? How many young women are participating? How do we bridge the gender gap in STEM? These are the areas where we can all have a deeper impact by supporting STEM education programs."
For example, The Spectris Foundation recently supported a challenge to build sustainable racing cars, and one student assumed some project management and leadership responsibilities that she didn’t seek—but also didn’t shy away from.
“She was just doing it all. She got a hands-on opportunity to make it happen, and it gave her so much confidence,” Levy said. “From that, she made more friends and joined after-school clubs. All through an opportunity to work on something practical in a team environment and in a safe place.”
“The reach that STEM education programs have is really inspiring to us,” Kerr said. “I think TechGirlz [a CompTIA Spark program] has served 40,000 students in 25 countries and on a range of topics and all areas of STEM. I believe 82% of girls have a positive view of tech after taking a course. That is very close to our hearts. When we are giving grants, we want to know what the impact is and that it’s really changing girls’ minds and they are looking at roles in tech.”