by GK Strategy 26th January, 2018

How to address Britain’s digital skills gap

With a new Secretary of State at the Department for Education and significant reforms to education and skills in motion, will there be progress in addressing fundamental digital skills gaps which continue to plague the UK economy? Employers certainly hope so.

An April 2017 survey of 1,400 businesses conducted by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) found that three in four UK businesses reported a digital skills shortage among their employees.However, 84% of firms recognised that digital and IT skills are more important to their enterprise now than two years ago.

Added to this, in May 2017 the OECD highlighted that the UK’s “skills characteristics struggle to meet the requirements of the technologically advanced sectors”.

Ensuring adults have the entry-level IT skills equipping them to re-train or move into a new sector is another major obstacle with regard to the UK skills base. In October 2016 the Government estimated that over 10 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Taking on and addressing these fundamental challenges will be critical to building a workforce that is fit for a rapidly changing economy.

PwC estimates that up to 30% of current roles in the UK could be automated by 2030, particularly in industries such as transportation and manufacturing. While it is widely accepted that forecasting the precise timescales for such radical shifts is extremely challenging, the government must recognise that educating a workforce equipped to thrive in a hi-tech digital economy should be placed at the heart of their developing approach.

Training for those entering the workforce is crucial but huge emphasis must be placed on those already in work, who will make up 60% of the workforce in 2030. One-size fits all qualifications will not deliver the flexibility needed to re-train and upskill such a large proportion of the workforce; digital training that offers transferable skills to existing workers should be prioritised.

The first step in this process should be empowering businesses through a repackaged apprenticeship levy, giving employers the flexibility to use the funding for high-quality digital training which addresses yawning skills gaps in the workforce. Businesses looking to innovate need government backing to ensure that funding will be available to train the workers of tomorrow.

Local political leaders, including metro mayors, should be incentivised to work together with groups of employers to deliver high-quality training to support the development of a modern workforce to fit the needs of the local economy.

For too long, far-reaching, national reforms have failed to take account of the huge diversity across the UK in terms of skills needs. While the government can continue to regulate the quality of provision, freedom for employers to work with training providers to design innovative training centred on digital skills should be a matter of urgency.

Modern technology is rapidly changing the nature of work and this will not let up; now is not the time to cling onto traditional ideas about education and skills. Existing jobs will be lost but new opportunities will emerge, and ensuring we have a flexible skills base equipped to adapt to this modern reality is essential to the success of the British economy.

GK helps higher education institutions effectively engage with key policymakers. Contact ed@gkstrategy.com for more information.

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