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The UK is facing a digital skills crisis. We will need 1.2 million new technical and digitally skilled people by 2022 to meet rising demand from employers. Looking further ahead, within 20 years predictions are that 90 per cent of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. Yet, up to 12.6 million of the adult population lack the basic digital skills they need to benefit from the online world and one in 10 adults (that’s nearly six million) have never used the internet.

Dozens of reports have been bouncing around the electronic universe over the past few years, all pushing for action. It looks like the messages are being heeded. The Government’s Digital Skills Strategy (published on 1 March 2017) set out an ambitious action plan. Amongst its proposals are a pledge to create more than four million free digital skills training opportunities.

These include:

  • a partnership between government, businesses, charities and voluntary organisations to ensure that people have the right skills for jobs in their area;
  • High Street banks to provide digital skills training to more than 3.5 million adults and children;
  • a commitment from Google to launch a Summer of Skills project providing five hours of free digital skills training for everyone in seaside towns;
  • various schemes to empower businesses, such as the creation of five international tech hubs in emerging markets; and
  • plans (already underway) to teach essential digital skills, such as coding, to children from primary school upwards so they acquire “computational thinking”.

What we have been exploring at OCN London is how to provide people with the digital skills they need - whether they are seeking employment, wanting to progress in their career or not wanting to be left isolated from the online world. The message coming from government and employers is that digital skills shouldn’t be simply the domain of the IT experts.

Everyone will need essential digital skills on a par with literacy and numeracy.

The Good Things Foundation - a charity dedicated to improving digital skills amongst the most disadvantaged communities (and winner of our Learning at Week Impact Award in 2016) – has carried out research in this area, published in The Real Digital Divide Report (June 2017). Whilst age is a factor – nearly two thirds of adults aged 65 and over either never or rarely use the internet - they found that by far the largest group of people (90 per cent) without access to the internet and digitally excluded were classed as ‘disadvantaged’. Indicators of disadvantage  can include having a low income, being disabled and leaving education at age 16 or earlier. The findings are based on data from Ofcom’s Adults Media Use and Attitudes Report (2015) that estimated 15.2 million of the UK adult population were either non users of the internet or limited users.

That research focuses on internet usage. But there are a whole range of other digital skills that people will need in order to enhance their employability and participate fully in a society where communication is increasingly conducted through social media, apps and online.

The question we have been posing is exactly what skills they will need and the best way of delivering them. Being able to use the internet is just the starting point. We have pulled out key information from recent reports, consulted experts in the field and  used this to inform the development of new digital skills qualifications, launched in January. Instead of simply updating  our existing qualifications we have started from scratch, taking on board some of the digital skills incorporated into the National Curriclum for schools.

Our new qualifications include units on programming and coding, understanding computational logic, creating and sharing content, collaborative working with other colleagues in ‘real time’ (even in different continents), automating spreadsheet calculation, using digital technologies such as apps and the essentials of digital safety and security. The learning objectives focus on practical demonstrations of competence – getting people to actually show what they can do, not just describe it.

The aim is that people will be able to demonstrate that they have the digital skills employers need. Added to that is the potential for greater earning power. Those who can use programming languages currently earn £10,000 a year more than those who consider themselves to have a competent skill level – such as being able to use search engines, email, and social media, according to the study by BT and Accenture, "Tech know-how. The new way to get ahead for the next generation". The benefit to the nation’s economy, says the study, is an additional £11 billion by 2022 if young people's digital skills are invested in.

A final message. It isn’t just young people who can benefit from digital skills. Once the initial barriers of lack of access to computers and fear of technology have been overcome, people of all ages can benefit from digital upskilling. And our mission as an awarding organisation is to reach the people in society who are most excluded. As further education colleges, adult education providers and community organisations are well aware, there is a huge untapped demand for education and training in this area and backing by government and employers is critical to meeting those needs.

"For the UK to be a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone, it is crucial that everyone has the digital skills they need to fully participate in society …  We must continue to address this digital divide between those who have been able to embrace the digital world and those who have not." (From the Government’s UK Digital Skills Strategy, March 2017)

Jacquie Mutter, Chief Executive, OCN London

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