Mind the (digital) gap

By Dr Tom Wilson, Research Executive

In the first of a series of blogs focussing on digital skills training and education in the UK, we take a look at the widening gap in the demand and supply of highly technical roles.

Can you code? If so, the world is your oyster. Individuals with strong digital and technology skills have never been more in demand. Those with the knowledge and ability to program, to develop apps, or who have other high-end digital skills in their armoury are among the best-placed in the population to take advantage of the digital revolution.

A joint study between the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in 2016 highlighted the growing skills gap between the demand and supply of tech-based roles. The real risk is that this will damage growth and innovation in the UK, potentially making it a less attractive place to work. For instance, the report found that 49% of SMEs and, incredibly, 72% of large companies were struggling to fill vacancies with suitable candidates. With the technology sector (then) representing 6% of the UK economy, and with a Gross Value Added (GVA) of £118.4bn in 2015 (and predicted to grow further), suitably qualified individuals have vast opportunities.

Roles requiring workers with a high technological ability are expanding at an incredible rate, with some analysts predicting that up to 1 million new digital jobs will be created by 2023, such is the tremendous explosion in the digital economy.

The UK is not alone in facing such a skills dilemma. The US is facing a digital landscape that is evolving equally as quickly. An increasing number of jobs (~70%) now require a medium to high level of technological skill, and a growing gap in the demand and supply of such workers has similarly been identified.

But why is the UK facing this skills gap in the first place? And how should it go about meeting the demand?

The problem is not just to do with the increasing number of jobs in this area, but also to do with current educational provision. While, in the past, teaching has been provided via traditional educational establishments, the speed of change of our digital society compared to curricula has left the latter behind. Indeed, the current provision of teaching is itself rather variable and inconsistent, with staff themselves acknowledging variable skills and support.

Whether the traditional education system is the correct way to rebalance the skills shortage is an entirely different topic for debate – the subject of a later blog. However, what is clear at the moment is that the current higher education system, and the education system as a whole, is not producing suitably skilled, work-ready people quickly enough.

The traditional educational routes are not simply going to reform themselves overnight. With this in mind, UK organisations need to think carefully about different strategies to bridge skills gaps and shortages in the meantime. But they need to think fast. In the face of the relentless pace of change of the digital world, companies need to adapt and implement new ideas quickly, or risk being side-lined.

The most straightforward option is to increase investment. This could mean investing more money, or more time. Taking the former, making roles more financially attractive would lure an increasing number of applicants. Bringing in talent from abroad would certainly be a sign of intent by UK businesses that this is the place for highly skilled workers to be right now.

Equally, investing time in new and existing employees is increasingly being seen as a necessity. Some companies are willing to hire highly educated individuals without the necessary technical skills, and simply train them up on the job. Most organisations are quickly realising that they must adapt their approach to professional development, by changing their training approach and even their internal culture, and are instead instilling a more lifelong approach to learning as new technologies emerge.

Another, more drastic, middle-term option is to set up emergency training courses at existing educational colleges and institutions as an interim measure. Being aware of the current shortfalls in the range of skills and qualifications required to fill vacant digital skills-based roles, it should not be difficult to put together a number of short-term courses, with the aim of equipping individuals with the skills needed to be eligible for highly tech-based roles. Employers in the digital sector have told us that they can recruit trained staff but that the skills and knowledge of those staff are behind the times. In some cases their programming languages are out of date. Universities and colleges may well need to develop short update courses and even provide on-site help to smaller companies.

Funding for UK businesses facing a critical shortage of suitable workers would not be a bad investment either. Such companies must remain agile to maintain their competitive advantage, and this move would ensure their ability to short-track the learning of individuals to fill vacant positions.

With the Government finally revealing its Digital Strategy last March, there is a national acknowledgement that educational reform is urgently required as digital skills move to becoming vital, everyday skills. However, a broad gap in highly-skilled technology-based roles exists, and despite the unveiling of this new policy, it has primarily been left to businesses to fend for themselves to keep pace with technological change, or they risk being left behind by the digital revolution.

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