How Stockholm is solving the talent shortage long-term

Published November 2016 in collaboration between Invest Stockholm and The Local. Photos by Tekniska Museet

Sweden's tech sector keeps expanding, and Stockholm is drawing in the lion's share of talent from abroad to work at its innumerable startups. But while Stockholm startups are eager to bolster their companies with talent from abroad, they realize that recruiting from abroad won't prevent the massive skill shortage that's coming.

A few years ago, the European Commission warned that, by the year 2020, Europe will be up to 900,000 coders short.

Sweden took note. Over the past two years Sweden's state-funded innovation agency, Vinnova, has devoted 8 million Swedish kronor to projects which develop "the digitalisation of future schools and the digital competence of youth".

And Stockholm, in particular, took note. It's been a record year for investments in Stockholm-based tech companies, but the sector realizes that keeping this growth sustainable means developing an internal solution to the talent shortage.

“We definitely don’t have enough developers and programmers here in Sweden,” says Anna Fredrixon, Chief HR Officer at Stockholm startup Truecaller. The company has been collaborating with Coder Dojo to offer coding lessons in their offices – an important step towards securing the future.

“It’s a global movement to have everyone test programming, open to boys and girls ages seven to 17,” she says. “We’ve had the kids come to our office several times. We provide our office space, internet access, snacks, and our employees are mentors for the kids.”

TrueCaller has been working with Coder Dojo for a couple of years now, and Fredrixon says she hopes more startups will begin engaging young students. But their work doesn’t stop there.

“Our founders and strategy managers also work with Prince Daniel’s mentorship programme for entrepreneurs, where they go out and talk to classes about coding,” Fredrixon says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. We need to start teaching kids about coding at an early age.”

EdQu, a Stockholm-based startup which aims to "create the world's best tools for measuring knowledge", is another company working actively with the issue.

“We all use several computers in our everyday lives, yet surprisingly few people understand how a computer ‘thinks’ and why it acts as it does,” says Viktor Sebes, one of the founders of EdQu.

EdQu launched a project in partnership with Kodcentrum last year, funded by Vinnova and backed by companies like Spotify and Microsoft as well.

“Kodcentrum is already doing a great job supporting grass-roots programming through schools, aimed at tech-savvy teachers and kids who want to try coding,” Sebes explains.

“Our idea with the project Kodstart is to back it up one more step, to empower both grownups and kids in the digital world, both for the sake of later teaching others or just to get a more solid foundation regarding basic computer science and digitalization.”

‘Learning to program is a matter of democracy’

Not all companies have the resources available to host coding sessions for kids in their own offices, of course. But that’s where Tekniska Museet, the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology, comes in.

“Our goal is to create interest in tech and programming from a young age, and encourage kids to follow through with this type of education later,” says Alfred Grimlund, Education Officer and Project Manager at the museum.

“Our vision, or perhaps our mission, is to de-mystify tech. We are all consumers of tech, but for many, what actually happens in a computer or in a computer program is a total mystery.”

Grimlund works with various programmes for kids at the museum, such as working with robots, the code platform Scratch, the Internet of Things, and creating simple hardware.

“We have a very wide variety. But much of what we do is robot programming,” he says.

“We teach kids how to make a robot move, throw a ball, or help out with various problems, for example. It’s an activity which we can make very simple for the youngest kids or more advanced for older students.”

And then there’s Quirkbots – the quirky Swedish robots and playthings that can be put into any school, anywhere, to teach kids to program.

“Quirkbots are as much toys as they are educational tools,” says Anna Velander Gisslén, who works with communication at both the museum and the Quirkbot company – yet another Swedish startup.

She explains that Quirkbot grew from the concept of STEAM (Science, Technology, Electronics, Art and Mathematics), as opposed to the outdated pedagogical model STEM (without art). The team behind Quirkbot decided it would be much easier to understand programming if the little robot had arms, legs, and eyes, instead of being a simple rectangular chip.

“When you add an element of creativity we see that the learning curve goes up significantly,” Gisslén explains.

“It’s designed as a little figure so kids can see what part they’re working with – and then they can add whatever they want. Straws, pipe cleaners, jewellery – anything.”

The Quirkbot interface is simple, using drag-and-drop functionality but with the option of switching to see the actual code.

Some students use Quirkbot to create a simple creature that can walk. Others have been known to build cranes multiple metres high, or a bridge which can withstand wind.

“A two-year-old can pick up an iPad and start a TV show, but they don’t understand it,” Gisslén says.“They’re passive consumers and we want them to become active producers. Code is everywhere. Why do the doors open when you walk into a store? Why do the lights turn on when you enter a room? How is it that you can set your washing machine to be done with a cycle when you get home after work?”

Gisslén says that while giving kids tech skills at an early age is critical for companies, it’s about much more than meeting the demands of the labour market.

“It’s actually about democracy. We all need to understand tech and coding, or a very small group will be in control of everything in life. It’s about removing those barriers and being able to understand and contribute.”

Alfred Grimlund agrees.

“In a way it’s simply about understanding the world around us,” he says. “Learning to read, to understand information and to analyse, is a democratic issue. And so is coding. Understanding how programming works is part of being a citizen in a democracy.”