From education to employment

T Level investment won’t solve the UK’s glaring digital skills gap ​

When Rishi Sunak spoke in front of Parliament and unveiled his 2021 Autumn Budget, he announced a £3 billion fund to deliver a “Skills Revolution” across the United Kingdom. The pledge was delivered against the backdrop of one of the country’s biggest hiring shortages on record, as UK job vacancies hit a staggering 1.1 million in October last year.

While the Chancellor’s thinking is certainly an important step in the right direction for tackling the UK’s ongoing talent shortage, more must be done to ensure that the nation is equipped with the skills that are in demand from struggling sectors. A particular challenge for hiring managers is finding candidates with the right job-ready digital skills. Reports have shown that within the past two years, a staggering 46% of businesses have struggled to recruit hard data skills, illustrating a massive market shortage and clear lack of job-ready digital talent.

Certain technical skills are in exceptionally high demand and the Government must address this directly via new funding to transform the talents of our existing workforce and not just the next generation. Only this will ensure that our existing and forthcoming workers are well-placed for the careers of the future. This demands more widespread, more meaningful, and more technical training that directly combats the digital skills gap across key areas, such as software development, cybersecurity, and project management.

Digital transformation through educational reform

The decision to categorise ‘Digital’ as a top priority for skills development among young people has been welcomed warmly by tech employers and recruiters alike. By equipping the future workforce with business-ready technical skills, the Government has simultaneously improved the employability of school leavers.

However, while digital T Levels are a great first step in helping to tackle the talent shortage, the Chancellor’s approach is not without its flaws. Given the rapid rate at which technology advances, one must question whether a two-year-long course can effectively equip youngsters with the necessary skills that technology careers require? 

While T Levels were initially developed alongside businesses to meet the current needs of the students’ chosen industry, it is Ofsted that will be responsible for conducting curriculum reviews. Therefore, this might mean that as curricula are revised every year, T Levels quickly become outdated and the skills most students develop become more theoretical and less ‘job-ready’. To ensure that T Levels remain business relevant, Ofsted must continue to consult with organisations year on year as technology naturally evolves and skill requirements change. Otherwise, we’ll be back to square one. 

Transforming the workforce of today

Despite allocating £1.6 billion to facilitate the T Level roll-out, the Chancellor has only set aside a comparatively meagre £550 million for adult education. These funds are to sponsor a series of in-person ‘Skills Bootcamps’, including more than 100 courses in digital skills, designed for the future of work, covering subjects such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Coding & Software Development, and Data Engineering. However, this is unlikely to move the needle on the country-wide need for talent transformation.

Given that the UK’s technology sector currently has the second-highest number of job vacancies in the country with more than 100,000 roles going unfilled each month, the wide variety of digital skills bootcamps on offer is certainly a positive step. However, the disparity of funding allocation between school age and working-age adults is questionable. 

With the unemployment rate up almost 1% from pre-pandemic levels, developing the skills of working-age adults ought to be a priority. Reports estimate that unfilled technology vacancies cost the UK economy a staggering £6.3 billion in lost revenue each year.

Therefore, closing the digital skills gap through schemes like the Chancellor’s adult education ‘Skills Bootcamps’ seems to be a clear way that the UK Government can boost its GDP and greatly facilitate the economic recovery of post-pandemic Britain.

Investing in youth is no quick fix

While there is no denying that developing the talents of school leavers is imperative for closing the digital skills gap in the UK, it seems short-sighted to allocate over half of the ‘Skills Revolution’ fund to courses aimed solely at 16-19-year-olds at a time where a significant majority of the current working population lacks the digital skills that businesses require.

With younger, cheaper candidates entering into the workforce, much of the existing workforce is at serious risk of getting left behind, and investing in youth is no quick fix either.

By focusing a significant majority of the budget on our future generation of workers, the Government is overlooking the needs of the current workforce and the demands of modern enterprise. More must be done to help develop the ageing workforce to ensure they remain employable. T Level investment won’t solve the UK’s glaring digital talent shortage on its own.

Working with the experts

To ensure that the skills being taught to both school leavers and the working-age population continue to remain business relevant, the Government would be wise to consider working with established talent transformation service providers that have experience in tackling skills shortages in the here and now.

Take Egypt, for example, where this strategy has worked particularly well. The Egyptian Ministry of Communications and Technology Information successfully upskilled 100,000 citizens through the use of online courses. Recognising that online learning can be equally as effective as in-person training, the state chose to work alongside an online course provider, my company Udacity, rather than running physical skills bootcamps off their own back. 

Impressively, the Egyptian Government has made digital skills training accessible to all, too – from those who are shielding or housebound as a result of the pandemic, to those who live in remote areas. By adopting a similar strategy here in the UK, the Government could help develop the digital skills of working-age adults regardless of geographical limitations.

Still a long way to go to close the UK’s digital skills gap

Ultimately, the Government still has a long way to go to close the UK’s digital skills gap. The Chancellor’s “Skills Revolution” has kicked off long-overdue digital transformation at both an individual and societal level, which will benefit the country for decades to come.

However, the disparity of funding means that adult education remains largely overlooked and the current workforce is at significant risk of getting left behind. The Government must consider investing more in giving our current generation of workers more job-ready digital skills to ensure they remain relevant and employable.

In addition, the Government must team up with the private sector to ensure that publicly funded digital skills initiatives result in real-life jobs being filled. We need to ensure that education is democratised and accessible to all – not just the future workforce.

Laura Cleaver, Vice President: EMEA & APAC at digital talent transformation platform Udacity

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  1. To what extent is a skills gap due to biological
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    or 400 metre champion – but such performances
    have never been likely, partly due to teenage asthma.
    In the world of work, what proportion of potential
    recruits can be the digital-savvy, whizzkid Python coders
    they might like to be?

    Neil Richardson