With the number of young people taking Technical subjects at GCSE having dropped by 40% since 2015, the Learning & Work Institute has warned that the UK is heading towards a digital skills shortage ‘disaster’, the effects of which would be ‘catastrophic’ to the country’s future standing as technological powerhouse.
Though the world is constantly becoming increasingly digitised, the pandemic has greatly accelerated the shift towards digital transformation over the past 12 months, with a recent McKinsey survey finding that responses to COVID-19 have speeded the adoption of digital technologies by several years – and that many of these changes could be here for the long haul.
The UK must therefore act now to prevent the impending digital skills shortage by investing in training that will help nurture a new generation of tech-proficient workers who can help us to remain competitive in this evolving business and economic environment.
As it stands
Recent research conducted by the Confederation of British Industry [CIB] helps provide some perspective on the digital skills shortage, revealing that nine in 10 employees will require some form of reskilling by 2030, with businesses, government and individuals needing to increase spending on adult education by £130 billion over 10 years.
These findings show that having a national workforce that is ill equipped to support digital growth not only poses a risk to economic recovery from coronavirus in the short term, but is also likely to harm economic performance in the long run – especially with the likes of the U.S.A., Singapore and Sweden all scoring considerably higher on their preparedness to exploit digital transformation.
Luckily, however, there is still time for the UK to avoid the severe ramifications of a digital skills shortage, though it is imperative that decisive action be taken now if this is to be achieved.
The role the government is playing
In his recent Budget statement, the Chancellor highlighted the government’s plans to place digital at the heart of its plan for economic recovery, and it is encouraging to see the measures that are being put forward to address the need for digital reskilling and upskilling.
These include the introduction of a £375 million UK-wide initiative called ‘Future Fund: Breakthrough’, which will seek to encourage investment in highly-innovative companies operating in life sciences and technology that are aiming to raise at least £20 million of funding, and the government will take a stake in these scale-ups, with private venture capital matching its contribution.
The fund is set to offer high-growth firms a chance to level up their ambitions and help to strengthen the UK’s status as a global hub for tech jobs and opportunities.
The launch of an overseas visa scheme has also come as welcome news, as this will assist start-ups and scale-ups in sourcing talent from overseas, and will include an unsponsored points-based visa for science, research and tech workers.
With access to talent from Europe having been disrupted by the restrictions that Brexit has placed on free movement, the scheme will allow companies to tap into a wealth of highly-skilled migrant workers who could help the UK to reach new heights in digital growth.
Help to Grow is another new initiative that is set to offer up to 130,000 smaller companies from across the country free digital skills training and a 50 per cent government contribution towards productivity software up to £5,000.
This investment reaffirms the position of SMEs as a vital part of our economic recovery, and acknowledges the need these firms have to access the latest technology that will allow them to excel in an increasingly competitive digital world.
What private companies must do
Private companies – whether they are start-ups, SMEs or blue chips – cannot simply rely on these government schemes to help save the day, however; they must recognise the responsibility they also have to invest adequately in the country’s digital skills base.
Tech is a key differentiator when it comes to business performance, and if firms want to get ahead of their competitors they need to consider what they can do now to reposition digital as a central part of their initiative going forward.
Investing in external training providers who deliver dedicated educational programmes can assist in pinpointing areas within the business where digital skills training is most needed and allow for steps towards plugging these gaps to be made.
Though businesses should seek to work alongside other businesses that can support the transformation of their digital skills bases where necessary, this should never be seen as a long-term solution as the aim is to build up internal capacity so that companies can stand on their own two feet without having to rely on outside consultants.
Making tech hires who can help firms to direct their digital skills strategy is a vital part of this in that it can help to revolutionise existing practices and processes and create a culture of digital autonomy that gives firms the confidence to challenge competitors and embrace new and revolutionary ways of working.
Most important of all, businesses must not lose sight of the important part that they must play in supporting digital growth, and take heed of this warning of what will happen if they fail to act in avoiding the approaching ‘disaster’.