What is the UK's ‘digital skills gap’ and how can we fix it?
Technology is advancing at a rapid rate, transforming the way businesses operate. As businesses embrace these new technologies, it’s becoming ever-more vital that the workforce is equipped with sufficient digital skills. But the supply of digitally-skilled workers is not keeping pace with demand. This is the UK’s digital skills gap - and it’s getting wider.
We’re going to have a look at the damaging effect the digital skills gap is having on British businesses, and what’s causing it. Finally, we’ll explore how to stop it from becoming a yawning chasm into which more growth, innovation and opportunities vanish.
What are the effects of the digital skills gap?
In a study by the Learning and Work Institute, 37% of employers said they had an advanced digital skills gap in their workplace. An even higher amount said they struggled to recruit for advanced digital roles such as developers and data specialists. Worryingly, three-quarters of them said their profitability would be impacted by a lack of digital skills.
In a time when technology should be enabling businesses to flourish, their transformation and growth is being hindered by a lack of digital expertise.
When businesses can’t find people for advanced tech roles, it prevents them from adopting new ways of working and becoming more efficient. It restricts their ability to innovate and develop new products.
These shortages inflate staffing costs. In-demand employees command whopping salaries and recruitment fees are through the roof. It’s getting even harder to retain tech experts as they’re lured elsewhere by higher salaries. The strain on businesses can lead to cuts, redundancies and even closures in the worst cases. It’s simply not sustainable.
The loss of profits, growth and opportunities caused by the digital skills gap costs the UK economy tens of billions of pounds every year.
What’s causing the UK’s digital skills gap?
Gone are the days when a basic knowledge of Microsoft Excel passed as digital skills. These days, the vast majority of employees in almost all sectors need to be proficient with a wide range of applications. They must also be able to communicate digitally, process digital data and content, and quickly learn new systems and technologies. Four in five jobs now list these basic digital skills as requirements.
What’s more, the demand for advanced digital skills is growing rapidly - and not just in the sectors you’d expect, such as IT and software development.
Newer technologies such as data analysis and AI are transforming the way industries such as finance, healthcare and marketing operate. The demand for digital specialists across the whole economy is skyrocketing.
So why is the supply not keeping up?
Part of the reason for this could lie within the education system. Participation in IT-related subjects has declined at GCSE and further education levels. And pupils now spend less of their time in school doing IT. It’s possible that schools aren’t doing enough to encourage and prepare students for careers in tech.
So, fewer people are leaving school equipped to progress into advanced digital roles. What’s more, employers in the UK invest significantly less in their employees’ digital training than those in other developed countries.
Another reason for the shortage is the stark inequalities that are evident across the tech landscape: geographical, socioeconomic and gender. These inequalities make digital roles less accessible to large sections of the population.
At present, the UK tech sector is London-centric. Overwhelmingly, the capital draws more investment in tech and has a much greater supply and demand of skilled tech workers. But London alone cannot provide enough digital talent to support the tech economy.
The stream of talent is further limited because many young people with socioeconomic disadvantages have no access to the internet or a suitable device. This greatly impacts their ability to develop sufficient digital skills.
Additionally, the tech workforce is overwhelmingly male-dominated. Only one in four tech roles are occupied by women, and participation in IT subjects in education is much lower among girls. Girls are also far less likely to perceive tech as a viable career. There’s no doubt that this exclusion of females, for whatever reason, is contributing to the digital skills gap.
What can we do to fix the digital skills gap?
It’s now impossible to ignore the digital skills gap, and in June 2022 the government launched the UK Digital Strategy. It outlines measures required to ensure Britain remains a global tech superpower.
Improving digital skills provision in the education system must be a priority. Giving employers more influence in tech education will help to ensure that young people are being equipped with the digital skills businesses need.
The new Digital Skills Council is also aiming to improve in-work training so that employers can upskill their own workforces. Significant investment will be needed to support businesses in doing this effectively.
It’s also vital that we identify and eliminate the barriers that prevent more women and people from disadvantaged backgrounds from developing digital skills. The demand for digital skills is so great that we cannot rely on a narrow section of the population. We need to ensure that people from all backgrounds are able to enter tech roles.
The growth of regional tech hubs such as the Midlands, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow is a step in the right direction. They’ll surely encourage more people across the UK to choose tech careers.
It’ll be a while before we see the benefits of these changes, however. What can businesses do in the short term to plug the gaps?
Many businesses don’t have the financial muscle to simply offer higher salaries than their competitors, but they can offer other incentives to talented employees. Young people now expect more than just financial rewards from their workplace. Investment in their training and well-being, progressive working policies such as flexible hours, and ethical values are all things that could make an employer more attractive.
Of course, many businesses are looking beyond our shores to fill the gaps. Several advanced digital roles such as software developers, IT business analysts and cybersecurity specialists, have now been added to the Shortage Occupation list. This makes it easier for foreign workers in these roles to obtain Skilled-Worker visas and fill UK tech vacancies.
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Get in touch to find out more.