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Meet Our Network: Liz Williams, BT

Liz Williams is responsible for BT Group’s tech literacy programme and its education strategies. She is chair of Good Things Foundation, the UK’s largest digital participation charity, which has just celebrated helping its two millionth learner.

ZA: Can you describe what role technology can play in reducing inequality?

LW: BT is uniquely placed –we’re the fabric of the national infrastructure – people’s lives are built around connectivity. The UK is one of the biggest digital economies in the world. Connectivity matters but it’s what people can do with it – that’s where the magic happens. It’s the capability to harness the transformative power of technology that’s important. Having digital skills can be life changing for all generations and without doubt will enable the next generation to thrive. I believe tech literacy has the potential to ignite stalled social mobility.

We noticed there was a major challenge – lots of kids are great tech consumers but do not understand the role that technology would play in their lives in the future. That can make the difference between being left behind and moving ahead, many people simply don’t understand that in the future all jobs will be technology enabled jobs. I get really excited when we start to look at future jobs; I genuinely believe that data analysts are the rock stars of tomorrow!

Tech literacy is your particular focus and obviously an important lever for change in society, can you give some examples of what BT is doing?

At BT, we’ve focused on three key crunch points. Firstly, early education, tech literacy needs to be a fundamental skill – as important as reading and writing. We’ve worked with partners including the British Computer Society, the Department for Education, and Raspberry Pi in primary schools on a programme called the Barefoot Computing Project. It helps primary school teachers get confident with the computational thinking concepts that underpin tech literacy. Where teachers have brought tech literacy into the classroom, they’ve seen improvement in the children’s numeracy and literacy, as well as softer skills including independent learning and problem solving.

Secondly, the teenage years are when many young people can start to shut down their choices. We want to take things kids love and are passionate about like sport and use them to bring the role of technology alive. For example, we went to an academy in Manchester with BT Sport and demonstrated the technology it takes to bring the best sporting action to the screen, to inspire the young people to think again about the role it might play in their future.

Personally I’m fascinated by how we get more girls to want tech careers – you need to make it cool and show the range of opportunities it can lead to. Ask most if they want a job in STEM and you won’t get a great reaction, but when you start to talk about being creative problem solvers that can change the world? Well, many want to sign up for that!

The third crunch point that we see as key is the transition to work, is when every job being a tech job becomes reality. We’ve focused our efforts on helping the most disadvantaged young people through our Work Ready programmes, which provides skills development and hands on work experience.

How is BT addressing youth unemployment?

In a number of ways. For example, Movement to Work – we’re part of a coalition of UK businesses working to tackle youth unemployment, and learning from each other. Our Work Ready programme helps 16-24 year olds, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, get better prepared for work. Our traineeship scheme offers young people who are not currently in education, employment or training the opportunity to join BT for seven weeks of skills development, an accredited qualification and hands-on work experience of what it takes to thrive in a world of work powered by tech. Trainees graduate with a BTEC equivalent qualification in digital employability skills. So far 1900 young people have started a traineeship or work placement.

We’re also working with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, which works with young people from deprived inner city locations. The foundation uses all sorts of methods to re up kids’ interest in learning – from dance to music to sport – and we pick up the baton with our traineeships and work placements and then work with them for up to a further 12 weeks to help them get into jobs, whether at BT or elsewhere. Our apprentices play a big part: they are brilliant role models which is incredibly powerful as they are peers young people can relate to, enabling them to help each other.

How do you get engagement across the business on the tech literacy programme?

BT people get why we are driving to help build a culture of tech literacy. It’s at the heart of BT’s purpose, ‘using the power of communications to make a better world’. And if you have an organisation that is acting in a way that is purposeful, people identify with that. But, it’s more than simply a corporate goal; it’s quickly become personal. It’s about investing in the next generation, our kids, our grandchildren. BT people have volunteered at scale to run Barefoot workshops for teachers, which is one of the reasons that part of the programme has been able to scale up so quickly. But for me the big challenge is about how you release the internal energy to drive the high level ambition forward. Seeing parts of the business, like BT Sport, stand up and say we could do x or y is probably the most rewarding part of my job. Engaged people from across the business are bringing gifts I could never imagine.

What are the biggest challenges for companies trying to address economic inequality? How do you do it right?

It’s about businesses coming together, understanding what the issues are, what’s already out there, not coming with a pre- determined solution that you gift to a charity and they then use precious resources trying to gure out how to use it. And it has to start with listening. When our CEO, Gavin Patterson, launched the Tech Literacy programme in March 2015, he announced the ambition – to help build a culture of tech literacy – and set a goal of reaching 5m kids by 2020. But having put that out there, we then worked really hard to unpack the issues; we listened to kids, parents and teachers. For example, we established that Barefoot Computing was valued, but too few teachers knew about it and there wasn’t a way forward to take it to scale. So rather than create a shiny new BT programme that might have been an easier option, we leant into Barefoot and it is now launched in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, making a real difference.

We’ve taken a collaborative approach across our Tech Literacy journey. We see it as a shared challenge that will only be solved by collective action. As an example, Gavin has now hosted two summits at the BT Tower – bringing together corporates, think tanks, NGOs, to crunch the issue, share best practise, and come up with solutions. At the rst summit, in 2015, I felt some scepticism about why BT were doing this but second time round it felt much more like a meeting of minds, that team game I mentioned.

What is BT’s approach to the SDGs?

We use the SDGs throughout our purposeful business activity – we benchmark against them. For me, tech is golden thread; it’s the thing that will help solve society’s biggest challenges, whether they are environmental or social. So that’s where we’re really focusing our efforts – investing in the future, so that people have the connectivity and the capability to harness the transformative power of technology.

Originally posted in SustainAbility’s Radar Magazine – Issue 13.