Neil Bentley-Gockmann

New @LearnWorkUK and @worldskillsuk report highlights a potential catastrophic gap in digital skills provision

Britain could be heading for a catastrophic gap in digital skills provision which is already costing the country billions* in lost growth, a leading research group has revealed.

Businesses and young people are under the illusion that existing shortfalls will be fixed in the near future – but without action, the situation is set to get worse as new evidence published today (March 22nd) has shown.

The report, ‘Disconnected: Exploring the digital skills gap’, published by the Learning & Work Institute today (March 22nd) commissioned by WorldSkills UK in partnership with Engineering ‘sector Connector’ Enginuity, raises the issue to stave off a future shock to the post pandemic recovery.

The new research shows that 60 percent of businesses believe that their reliance on advanced digital skills is set to increase over the next five years whilst 88 percent of young people realise that their digital skills will be essential for their careers.

However, while employer demand for digital skills is set to continue to grow, participation in digital skills training has declined. The number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has fallen by 40% since 2015, with the number taking A Levels, further education courses and apprenticeships all declining.

Further, under half of UK employers (48%) believe that young people are leaving full-time education with sufficient advanced digital skills and 76% of businesses believe that a lack of digital skills would hit their profitability.

Dr. Neil Bentley-Gockmann, OBE, CEO of WorldSkills UK said:

“Young people and businesses are at one, recognising the growing importance of the digital economy. But assumptions that the current digital skills gap will be closed in the months and years to come are misplaced. 

The former Deputy Director-General of the CBI said:

“As business demand for advanced digital skills is growing, fewer young people are applying to study the subject which could, if allowed to go unchecked, lead to a significant shortfall in provision.

“We need to plug shortages by inspiring more young women as well as young men to understand that digital careers are for them, and we also need to ensure the skills they are developing are of the highest quality to meet employer and economic needs. This is crucial for attracting much-needed foreign inward investment to create jobs across the UK and help the economy grow.  Other major global economies are ahead of the UK in valuing high quality digital skills to help drive their competitiveness and productivity, we need to act now to ensure the UK is not left behind.”  

The report also found there is a need to level-up demand for and supply of digital skills by ensuring investment in digital is prioritised in local economic development.

Stephen Evans Dec 2018 100x100Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said:

 "Our research shows that demand for basic digital skills is already nearly universal, and demand for more advanced digital skills will continue to increase. Helping young people develop the digital skills that employers need will be vital both to driving our economic competitiveness, and to ensuring young people can succeed in the labour market of the future.

"Yet while demand has increased, the number of people taking IT courses across GCSE, A Level, further education and apprenticeships has declined in recent years. 

"We need to see a step-change in ambition on digital skills, with government, employers, providers and local areas working together to deliver the digital skills we will need.” 

The fundamental findings show that as 60 per cent of all job losses during the pandemic have been among 16- to 24-year-olds, supporting young people in the development of digital skills is even more vital now than ever.

There is a growing digital divide across the country – with London having both the highest levels of demand for and supply of digital skills. Compared to other regions and nations of the UK, the capital has the highest proportion of employers who require advanced digital skills, and the highest number of apprenticeship starts in ICT. Given the growing importance of digital tech and digital skills, the report warns that this imbalance could exacerbate regional inequalities.

There is also a stark gender gap in digital skills, with young females under-represented at every level. Females account for just 22% of GCSE entrants in IT subjects, 17% of A Level entrants, 23% of apprenticeship starts in ICT, and 16% of undergraduate starts in computer science.

WorldSkills UK, which recently made radical changes to the way it works forming a Centre of Excellence to cascade advanced skills in numerous disciplines to 40,000 students in colleges across the country, has pledged several measures to tackle the situation.  They commit to:

  • Showing more young women and men that digital careers are for them 
  • Embedding digital skills in their development programmes across all parts of the UK
  • Championing the development of excellence in advanced digital skills through international benchmarking to support economic recovery with their partners in government, education and industry. 

Sector Reaction 

Demand for experts with artificial intelligence, cloud and robotics skills has increased rapidly in recent years as new technologies continue to emerge. With businesses struggling to fill job positions with these areas of expertise, there are concerns that there is a major digital skills shortage ahead. The UK may be headed toward a digital skills shortage, so what can the UK be doing to combat this now?

Dr Rogério de Lemos, Director of Graduate Studies (Taught) at the University of Kent’s School of Computing, has commented on how technical digital skills are critical to equip students for future interdisciplinary careers and how future software development should focus around shorter, more efficient use. He said:

‘There are several factors associated with a developing skills shortage, but there is currently a demand for software for a wide range of application areas outpacing the expertise that is available. In order to develop software more efficiently, there is the need for automating software development, but this requires highly skilled professionals for developing new tools and applying these tools. While higher education institutions are focusing on providing a strong basis that allow our graduates to flourish in using a wider range of tools and techniques, many industries want immediate technical skills. These skills require both time and practice.

‘There is also the need for more effective and efficient ways for developing software, which would support the skill demand. The end goal is to remove the role of software developer from conception to operation. We are a long way from this, but there are some industries that for the sake of agility are seeking solutions in which software development is highly automated. The traditional cycle where development and operation are two quite distinct activities does not match with current needs in which continuous delivery has become the norm. The goal is essentially to produce software in short cycles with greater speed and frequency. For example, a financial analyst wants to analyse some data using a specific set of computational tools. For that the analyst should not rely on a software engineer to develop the required environment, which takes time and is costly. Instead, the analyst should be able to put together software components and services that would allow them to perform the required analysis, and once finished the analyst should be able to discard the whole software.

‘At Kent we aim to provide the scientific basis and key technical skills from which our graduates are able to thrive in their future professions. Kent provides a wide range of courses from conversion to advanced that would enable our applicants to become specialists in areas which currently have a shortage of skills. With our conversion courses, we take applicants from any background and transform them into professionals that are able to apply their technical skills to a wide range of fields, including, artificial intelligence and cyber security. These two fields, in particular, are highly interdisciplinary hence the incentive for applicants from other fields to obtain additional digital skills. Regarding the advanced courses, we have tailored our Cyber Security MSc to the needs of the market, and that is why our course is one of the few in the country that is a fully certified course by the UK Government’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).’

Mark Creighton 100x100Mark Creighton, CEO of leading professional academy Avado comments on the opportunity at hand for employers and educators alike to give everyone access to upskilling programmes to ensure both youth entering the workforce and adults from all backgrounds have skills fit for the future:

“The skills gap is a problem for our economy. However, at Avado, we have seen a 9% shift towards self-funded courses which belies the report’s assertion that young people are simply expecting training from employers and not taking steps to acquire skills themselves. 

"There is more the sector can do to encourage take-up, especially amongst women and those from underrepresented backgrounds, who may be less able to self-fund courses due to systematic disadvantage. When we ran our free FastFutures programme, we found there was no shortage of interest in digital and workplace skills amongst all young people, once they were given the opportunity. 

"Many young people have very high digital knowledge, although it may not be formally recognised by a qualification. Employers and educators alike must find ways to recognise and harness this talent to bring young people into the workplace. Making clear the importance of digital skills in schools and ensuring that AI and IT courses are fit for purpose is a very good place to start. However, our whole workforce must have access to upskilling programmes to ensure nobody gets left behind as we move into the future.”

Agata Nowakowska 100x100Agata Nowakowska, Area Vice President EMEA at Skillsoft:

"Despite a major drive to encourage younger students to pursue STEM subjects, the latest research from the Learning & World Institute highlights that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. Unfortunately, today’s figures suggest a more long-term impact on the digital education of young people.

"Businesses are already struggling to find enough talent to close the digital skills gap and students will soon be entering one of the most competitive job markets in recent memory. Given STEM roles are predicted to double by 2028, the UK’s economic future lies in closing this skills gap; its crucial schools are equipping pupils with the skills they will need to be successful in the modern, digital workplace.”

Engineering ‘sector connector’ Enginuity, which partnered the research, is calling for sweeping changes to stave off digital deprivation and the impending skills gap. Lucy Thompson, Chief People & Transformation Officer, Enginuity, said:

“As the sector connector across Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing, we will continue to support the employers we serve to close their digital skills gaps and challenges within their workforce strategies.

“Our work as trusted skills experts enable us to be a voice with policymakers, industry, educators and most importantly learners.”

The areas of focus which Enginuity will seek to improve as part of the work we do to build a better working world and enable young people to find meaningful work and careers are:

  1. Diversity within digital careers – expanding the work we do to include digital careers as well as Engineering and Manufacturing careers.
  2. Building links between providers and Industry – being that conduit that can take the ‘wants and needs’ from Industry and turn them into learning programmes and opportunities for providers.
  3. Embed digital across all provision – thinking ‘digital-first’ as we develop future learning frameworks and ensuring that digital skills are built at each stage of lifelong learning.  Developing technology products that enhance learning at all ages through the acquisition of digital skills.
  4. As an employer voice – use our collective influence to ensure engineering work-based qualifications, as they are developed, contain core components requiring the development, assessment and certification of digital skills.
  5. National Manufacturing Skills Task Force – bringing together the best thinking from across the various sectors we serve to explore how we can ensure that the digital skills requirements of employers are matched with the skills development opportunities that are available in the marketplace.

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