Demand for digital skills is greater than ever: Here’s how employers and staff must adapt

A shortage of workers with expertise has created a digital skills deficit. This is what needs to be done

Wes Hicks via Unsplash

Technology is rapidly and fundamentally changing the way most people do their jobs, disrupting the nature of work and increasing the demand for new kinds of digital skills.

The impact can be felt in all kinds of jobs. Gone are the days of copywriters simply writing copy, for instance. Now they also need to be familiar with search engines and social media to know what will make their work more visible online. Architects need to be able to create digital concepts as their clients now often expect to see more than a 2D drawing. Accountants have to keep up with rapid digital advances disrupting their industry such as the growth of online filing.

Byron Nicolaides, CEO of PeopleCert, a professional skills assessment and certification business, says: “The digital skill gap describes the effect that has resulted from a shift towards digitalisation, with the emergence of new professions alongside the displacement of other roles that now require continued digital training.”

“If the demand for digital expertise is not able to be met by the supply, the resulting deficit in a skilled workforce will not only affect the ability of businesses to shape their own future, but will hinder the economic growth and generate a new reality of [digital] illiteracy, ” argues Nicolaides.

The UK is the fifth most digitally advanced nation in Europe (Finland comes top) according to data from the European Union. It is already home to a large number of big tech businesses and the UK has more tech “unicorns” (start-up businesses valued at $1 billion or more) than any other European country.

According to Tech Nation, a UK network focused on accelerating the growth of digital businesses across the country, in 2018 the UK continued to attract tech talent, employing 5 per cent of all high-growth tech workers globally. In Europe this places the UK behind Germany but ahead of Sweden, France, Denmark and the Netherlands.

Despite this encouraging news, the UK is still facing a significant digital skills shortage. A report from the Open University last year highlights the extent of the problem and its impact on UK companies, with nine in 10 organisations admitting to having a shortage of digital skills.

The report, Bridging the Digital Divide, also reports that 37 per cent of jobs are expected to alter significantly in the next five years — which could see 12 million employees in the UK affected by changing roles or potential redundancies.

Skills in demand

“AI gets a lot of headlines because it is quite sexy, but it is not the core of the problem,” says David Willett, commercial director in the Open University’s Business Development Unit, noting that there are some very specific skills missing from the workplace.

Businesses are facing gaps when trying to recruit into roles related to cyber security and cloud-based development and management, he says, citing the Bridging the Digital Divide report. It shows that a third of business leaders are unable get to grips with new technologies because of a lack of expertise. Reversing this gap by helping individuals to acquire the necessary digital skills would have an enormous impact on the economy.

A 2017 study conducted by Siemens on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy showed that a national programme focused on increasing the capacity of existing tech hubs and providing more targeted digital training to workers could boost the manufacturing sector by £455 billion over the next decade. That would increase growth in the sector by up to 3 per cent a year and result in a net gain of 175,000 jobs.

Jobs that involve digital skills also tend to be better paid. Data from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) shows that roles requiring digital skills pay 29 per cent more than those that do not (£37,000 versus £28,700 a year).

How is Britain coping? 

“We have seen a rise of technology-related apprenticeships that are becoming acknowledged as one of the most effective pathways to develop talent,” Willett points out. “Also, businesses are realising they need to invest in ongoing employee training.”

Data from the Open University shows that small and medium-sized businesses invest 13 per cent of annual revenues in digital training, and larger corporates seven per cent.

But there are questions about whether companies are providing enough training and at the right time. Anne-Marie Malley, managing partner for consulting at Deloitte, says that companies need to consider how employees will get the most out of new technology before it is even introduced. “Training can often be seen as an afterthought, something to be addressed once technologies have been implemented,” she says. “Workforce retraining should be considered at the very start of an implementation project.”

It’s also important to invest in non-digital strengths, she argues. “Encouraging the development of skills that are uniquely human, such as imagination, creativity, curiosity and emotional and social intelligence, will be fundamental in ensuring that workers’ roles can adapt to new technologies.”

Digital Skills Strategy 

In an effort to help more people acquire digital skills, Theresa May’s government set out a Digital Strategy in 2017, with the aim of providing workers with the digital skills and ongoing training to enable the UK to be a world-leading and inclusive digital economy.

In August 2018, the DCMS launched the Digital Skills Innovation Fund, aiming to help under-represented groups and people from disadvantaged backgrounds to get into digital roles. To date it has provided £1.1 million of funding for four regional programmes that focus on helping women who live or have small businesses in the UK’s most deprived areas to acquire digital skills.

Matt Warman, minister for digital, told Future London: “If we do not address the digital skills shortage, in a short number of years, we will face some very serious issues impacting the economy and society as a whole.

“This is why the UK Government has committed £3 billion towards the National Skills Fund for the next five years, in an effort to promote digital literacy and digital inclusion.”

What politicians are doing 

The Government is also supporting the Tech Talent Charter (TTC), a non-profit organisation working to address inequality in the technology sector. It gives tech organisations principles they can adopt to help change their hiring and retention practices to be more gender-diverse. To help achieve this, the DCMS has given Tech Talent Charter £359,000 of funding to date.

Jules Pipe, London’s deputy mayor for planning, regeneration and skills, says the capital needs workers with advanced digital skills. “More than half of the capital’s start-ups say a lack of highly skilled workers is their main challenge, while emerging industries — such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality — look for the most cutting-edge talent.”

He points to the Mayor’s Digital Talent Programme, which has supported 800 Londoners into digital careers since 2017, and includes a focus on young women and Londoners from a range of backgrounds.

Nicolaides says that the future demands that both governments and businesses adapt to continuous training. “That [means] constantly skilling, up-skilling and reskilling their workforce, so they can be part of this ‘brave new workplace’ and meet their full potential,” he says. “This will foster economic growth and pave the way towards a wider social progress.

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