From education to employment

Tackling the Digital Skills Gap requires concerted effort – Ethical financing is only part of the solution

Brett Shanley, Founder and CEO of Knoma

As global economy shifts into the fourth industrial revolution, Brett Shanley, the CEO and founder of Knoma “The Knowledge Market”, gives his views on the digital skills crisis and how people are embracing education and skills to futureproof their careers.

How popular are digital skills courses?

Extremely. Since launching in 2020 we’re seeing more and more people looking to start a career in digital or technology.  We’ve funded over 1,000 individuals and expect to fund an additional 2,500 by the close of 2022. A typical applicant is aged between 30 and 40 and they’re motivated by the knowledge they will receive a better salary and long-term career prospects if they retrain.

Many people in the UK are naturally concerned about the impact of technology on their livelihoods.  Automaton is phasing out many low skilled jobs while AI, virtual personal assistants, and chatbots, are expected to replace almost 69% of a manager’s workload by 2024 according to the World Intelligence Congress. The reality though, is that this new technology is creating more jobs than are being lost, at a higher salary. For example if you look up the average UK salary on Glassdoor it’s £23,104 per year while a UK technician’s income is £34,718.

What are the emerging skills and experience that employers are looking for?

It is important to understand that reskilling and upskilling for a modern digital economy is non-negotiable. The accelerating impact of technology on sectors and jobs requires all workers, regardless of age and experience, to be undertaking continual learning, to ensure they keep up to date with modern skills. This is the only way to stay relevant.

People need to understand that digital is everywhere and now a very wide skill area, so employers are looking for all sorts of proficiencies and experience. Data, coding, product management, marketing and Web3.0 are the principal areas we’re seeing uptake in courses and there are a variety of ways people are choosing to study. With demand outstripping supply, employers are more concerned about having people who can get the job done, rather than whether they are qualified through a degree, bootcamp or even a short course. Education in whatever format that fits the needs of a learners is ultimately what matters.

I would advise anyone looking to change career or pursue a professional accreditation that they understand the time commitments involved, as well as the cost, format (full-time, part-time) and mode of learning (i.e. online/ in person /hybrid). It is a big decision and one that should be comprehensively researched. Ultimately. you must be comfortable that the course fits with your lifestyle and current commitments outside work and learning.

How do we encourage more inclusivity in digital as well as ensure people are empowered to learn about it, regardless of their location?

Clearly age, background, religion, disability, or gender shouldn’t limit an individual from pursing the career or wage they want. It is the responsibility of education providers and the government to ensure this message is out there, understood and reinforced with action. There is no question in my mind that we still have a long way to go but I do believe that change is happening.

In terms of access to learning, there are courses available all over the UK. Education is not the preserve of those who live in big cities. That being said, it is important that courses can be consumed on the go, such as through mobile phones. This will enable people to learn and study from whatever location they find themselves in. This also must include being able to download content for those times when learners are in an area where a WIFI is poor. The language learning App Duolingo is an excellent example of this.

In an “always on” and “always accessible” digital world though, people undertaking learning and training must take time to switch off and look after their mental health and well-being. Balancing a job and learning can be stressful and more so when you throw a family into the mix. Again education providers and business leaders must adopt a culture of understanding with regards stress and mental health, and have better systems in place to ensure flexibility. That means allowing people to stop and start their learning, as their personal circumstances dictate. In the long run, doing so would make the decision to reskill more attractive and increase uptake, which would benefit education providers.

Traditional student loans – inhibiting uptake of tech subjects?

I believe this to be the case for all courses, not just tech. Students take out loans because of financial need. For those that cannot rely on the “Bank of Mum and Dad” a loan is a necessity. The Government expects that the average debt for a student starting a course in 2021/22 will be £45,800 after completion. it’s safe to say many students and their families will worry about such high costs and how they’ll ever be repaid. This can result in someone delaying their university application or not going at all. Potential students might also be further put off by the complexities and tediousness of the loan application process, which can result in significant delays in approval if a detail is wrong or missed.

Naturally the private sector has seen the opportunity to address this and there’s now a range of viable alternatives to the Student Loans Company. For instance, rather than charging students interest or fees for spreading the cost of a course, Knoma receives a finder’s fee from the education providers we’re partnered with. This benefits students as their costs are minimised, our partners get to fill their costly and empty places, and we profit from facilitating the process and managing any risk.

Will the government adopt a “buy now pay later” model?

Without question but it’s still a relatively new concept so I believe they’ve adopted a “wait and see” policy. It makes sense for the government to see how successful BNPL becomes and what other innovations arise in the education finance sector before they adopt it themselves. Remember the current system works relatively well for them and changing direction will be a huge undertaking.

Is the government doing enough to address the digital skills gap in schools?

The government recently published its UK Digital Strategy which has a strong emphasis on its levelling up agenda, including digital skills, infrastructure, and economic growth. Key to this will be inspiring the next generation to see digital and tech as an essential career path into a broad range of careers. For example, the DfE will ensure that every school in England is equipped with the knowledge to teach computing through the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE). Worryingly many of the ministers involved have since resigned and how wedded the new Prime Minister and education secretary will be to it remains to be seen. Getting children interested in STEM while at school is a great long-term solution. Unfortunately STEM subjects can be expensive to teach and many schools lack the expertise to do so properly. This is an ongoing problem and I have yet to see it addressed in any meaningful way in terms of real investment and qualified “boots on the ground”.  

That being said the government recognises that technology is key to the UK’s global competitiveness, and by and large their strategy reflects this.  A short-term fix are tech visas, but the application process is even slower than applying for a student loan! The UK needs great tech people, but I have concerns that we may become too reliant on affordable but limited foreign labour, at the expense of growing homegrown talent, which needs to be nurtured first and foremost in the school system.

What is the role of UK PLC?

Whether it is banging the drum for tech jobs at university careers fairs, offering internship programmes, or just offering internal training to employees looking to develop as professionals, companies have a huge role to play in making sure the UK remains a global tech superstar. A strong, confident, economy built on technology and high-level skills is a utopia for business, but the government can’t do singlehandedly. The NCUB is doing some great work marrying up leading tech companies and universities but last year reported a 2% fall in the number of interactions with large businesses and a 39% fall in the number of SME interactions, as well as a 7% decline in UK business investment in university R&D. Admittedly the last three years have been tough for UK PLC but the business community has to take more ownership in tackling the crisis, as otherwise we’ll make no headway in escaping it.

Do soft skills still have a place in this brave new world of technology?

Technical prowess is important for securing a job, but soft skills are essential for succeeding in the modern workplace, even during the fourth industrial revolution. After all they’re key to building relationships, critical thinking, and a growth mindset amongst other things. Remember people want to work with people, not automatons!

By Brett Shanley, Founder and CEO of Knoma

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