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We need to close the digital skills gap to keep Britain’s future bright

Eleanor Bradley, MD, Registry Solutions & Public Benefit, Nominet
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The younger generation is both criticised and congratulated for their use of technology at the same time.

While excessive exposure to screens can be detrimental and the negative effects of social media are well documented, more positively, young people are seizing the digital age by coding in schools and growing up as digital natives.

Despite this, young adults are leaving school lacking the digital skillset that is needed in employment. Polished iPhone typing and Snapchat streaks do not equate to the abilities needed in jobs where cloud computing and data analysis are more commonplace. These native digital skills are not enough to attract the attention of ambitious employers.

This means our young people are key contributors to what we call the ‘digital skills gap’, while the current workforce is also a major component. It’s the phrase that captures the disconnect between those entering the workplace and the skills that are required. In 2016, Sanjay Brahmawar, the Global Head of Strategic Business Development for IBM’s Internet of Things said: “By 2020 we will have one million unfilled jobs in the IT sector.” We are here now. Consider this: according to a recent Accenture report, the digital skills gap could cost the UK economy as much as £141 billion in GDP growth. 

Amidst apocalyptic promises of workplace automation, all hope is not lost. Yes, there has been a displacement of roles due to digitalisation, but there has been an emergence of new professionals too. With more people working in Machine Learning, Digital Transformation and AI. A two-pronged solution – with cooperation between education and employers – will ensure today’s youth can be properly trained to fill digital posts.

It’s clear that school curriculums need to work harder to tackle this skills gap. The much debated ICT lessons, with an overview of basic tools and software are not enough. Young people are clearly interested in digital skills, and companies need to utilise this to close the digital skills gap. Perhaps big tech companies should be working with schools to help them develop the right kind of skills that young people will need when they enter the workplace?

Employers also have a duty to address the gap. A recent CBI report noted that 40% of employers say a skills shortage is the reason why they are struggling to fill entry-level jobs. If the problem is so paramount for business then they must act responsibly by investing more time in motivating the interest of graduates. The stark reality is that they need to consider this issue seriously in order to remain competitive.

Action at both ends will have major implications for the success of the UK’s digital industry. Last year, Margot James, then Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, delivered the keynote speech at the one year anniversary of Tech Talent Charter. The Minister acknowledged that the Tech sector was worth £184 billion, and was growing at more than two and half times the rate of the economy as a whole.

However it is difficult to predict the future of work, particularly in the tech sector, when we hear futurologists predicting that robots will be doing all of our jobs.  The UK cannot therefore be complacent and tech businesses should lean into the skills sector to ensure it remains ahead of the curve.

Cooperation and collaboration will be key to avoid the gap widening further. A connection between employers and the younger generation must be sparked, and channels of communication established to foster a mutually beneficial relationship. Better support must be made available to increase curiosity.

Programmes such as This Is How, a digital learning platform and podcast, can create awareness in young people about the breadth of opportunities available to them. This will help them learn how they can become indispensable within the emerging jobs market.

We know that dated careers pages do not attract the future data scientists, scrum masters, web developers and animators, for example. Now it is time for young people and employers to coordinate. They must work together to build a successful digital future and a vibrant digital economy.

Eleanor Bradley, MD of Registry Solutions and Public Benefit, Nominet

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