From education to employment

How collaboration between further education and business will close the digital skills gap

robert west

Over the past few years, businesses across the UK have increasingly come to rely on their employees’ digital proficiency. But this deepening dependency has highlighted an increasing digital skills gap amongst our workforce across all industries. At present, there is a shortage of talent – 9 in 10 people will need to reskill by 2030 to meet firms’ needs. So, there is a significant risk that the UK could be put at a disadvantage if we fail to prioritise and invest in a world-leading digital talent pipeline.  

Why businesses need to invest more in digital skills training

Digital skills can be game-changing, and effective training is a proven way to recruit, motivate and retain talent. It provides progression opportunities which enable employees to realise higher earning potential, minimises skills gaps and supports succession planning. Yet firms today are facing serious challenges in upskilling and reskilling their teams. It’s clear that businesses need to invest more in digital skills training, but companies also need to take a long-term view on where people with the necessary skills for the future are going to come from. This is where the relationship between the further education sector and the business community becomes crucial. Further education has access to the skills pipeline businesses need. 

But when it comes to digital skills, the further education system must be responsive to an employer-led system. This means providing cutting-edge courses, equipping people with the competencies needed for the digital economy, taught by experts with appropriate knowledge and experience. Further education providers face the obvious challenge of keeping up to date with new platforms and skills, and retaining staff experienced enough to educate on these topics. AI, digital marketing and cyber security are key areas for businesses, and the FE sector must provide enough courses in these in-demand fields. Currently, the education system does not always align with industries and a fast-moving tech sector. It’s hardly surprising, with new digital technologies popping up every week – how is a structured education system expected to keep up? 

Overcoming challenges

To overcome this challenge, the business and education sectors must collaborate closely, working together on identifying specific skills gaps and finding shared solutions. Specifically, the further education sector should identify and assess how business could tangibly support colleges – from offering work experience to mentoring senior education leaders. Further education providers could also make explicit what business could gain from closer engagement with the sector, to highlight the benefits of collaboration. 

We are calling on CBI members to contribute to our new digital skills toolkit, to share how they are approaching the challenges of closing the digital skills gap. In order to fill this vacuum, we must provide people with access to opportunities. This isn’t just about young people – it’s about giving people of all ages the chance to upskill and reskill via training courses, bootcamps and apprenticeships. To address skills and labour shortages, digital courses need to be easily accessible, and equitably promoted to bolster diversity. 

There are fantastic examples from some of our CBI provider members, emphasising their work in cooperation with employers to train the next generation of professionals through innovative digital practice. For instance, CBI member Bridgwater & Taunton College (BTC) provides one of the delivery arms for the National College for Nuclear (NCfN). NCfN is a state-of-the-art nuclear training facility with a curriculum and delivery offer designed in collaboration with industry. Recognising that unskilled and unqualified staff cannot practise in a live nuclear power plant, the college has a virtual reality simulation to recreate a ‘live’ installation, meaning students can effectively become immersed in a working nuclear environment.  

So, it’s essential that further education providers establish networks with firms to build intelligence and inform the supply side of the skills market. Through working with the CBI as members, further education suppliers can build long-term and sustainable relationships, enabling alignment and investment in skills to genuinely meet the needs of local, regional and national economies.

By Robert West, Head of Education and Skills at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) 

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