Education and skills development for the digital economy

A concerted effort to bridge the digital skills gap is key but an inclusive, broad-church approach is needed to make the digital project a real success

There is general consensus regarding a three-pronged approach to digital transformation. Identifying and implementing the right digital technology to reach radically better efficiencies is just half of the story. Unless a business also puts the right processes and the right people in place, it will end up with a vanity project bound to fail.

At the focal point of the people aspect there lies the problem of accessing and retaining the right digital talent. The UK, and especially London, being a leading tech-hub with more software developers than any of its major competitors in Europe, businesses operating here are in a uniquely favourable position in this respect. An even flow of top talent is ensured by special visas for foreigners, as well as master-degree level courses in subjects such as AI, cybersecurity and the blockchain that feature among the top twenty on global league tables.

But given the breakneck speed that the tech sector is expanding at – it grows six times faster than other businesses – universities can’t bridge the digital shortage gaps by themselves,

One reason for this is that companies are in need of a full spectrum of digital skills – not just advanced ones. While postgraduates in data science, advanced digital manufacturing or IoT are instrumental in filling top positions in companies, there is also a slew of jobs requiring mid-level or lower digital skills: we’ll soon need legions of AI trainers, data assistants and digital project managers.

Higher education can only serve as one among the many digital talent pipelines that supply the missing skills each and every business sector is ready to absorb. Alternative educational institutions and schemes are, on the one hand, putting great pressure on universities to make their digital courses competitive and as relevant to industry as possible. On the other hand, the diversification of post-GCSE training in this area also means that the different digital-skills-teaching offerings don’t just compete with but also complement one other.  As a result, both students and employees have access to much more diverse career paths now than previously.

Programmes such as the government’s recently launched Lifetime Skills Guarantee supplying young people without A levels with a free three-to-four-month course in further education are designed to funnel more talented people into the digital skills pipeline. And so are university conversion schemes, which enable students from non-STEM courses to pivot to a career in the digital economy provided they have a solid background in algebra.

Graduates, on the other hand, may get signed up for a course at their employer’s corporate academy either straight after joining or at a later stage in order to customise their academic training to a specific role. These academies set up by large, often multinational tech companies or consultancies have a sharp focus on a specific subject knowledge area pertinent to their profile, for example fintech, supply chains or coding. Unlike universities, they rely much more heavily on their internal experts’ specialist knowledge, social or un-formalised learning between colleagues and on-the job training.

A strand of corporate academies offers executive training too, where the C-suite has a chance to either build or tweak their digital knowledge to make better informed strategic decisions or gain the level of digital skills their role now requires. As an alternative, executives whose company doesn’t run a corporate academy can pick and choose from a wealth of targeted university modules to achieve the same.

The importance of digital skills beyond recruiting for digital roles

Seeing the abundance and versatility of available training opportunities it seems that the UK is still very well-positioned to provide the digital talent needed to fill the approximately 90,000 weekly vacancies calling for different levels of digital skills. However, regarding the overall literacy of the nation, the British are ranking 30 with 10 percent of the population lacking basic digital skills such as browsing, emailing and word processing. Meanwhile, a much higher percentage of the population doesn’t know how to use social media, a skill that will also become fundamental as millennials Generaton Z are increasingly taking over the labour market.

Higher education, already aware of the issue, is offering digital courses for students on arts or social sciences career paths as well. Free courses are available online for those who feel they need to familiarise themselves with digital technologies. Fittingly, the Institute of Coding – a consortium of about thirty universities, businesses and technological experts – has undertaken in its mission to not only assist a move towards a digital career or to perfect some specialist digital capability but also to improve digital literacy in general. People tend to fear what’s unknown to them. And the more segments of society learn to leverage digital tools, the less of them will feel disenfranchised by technology.

In a more digitally savvy environment, the all-important buy-in that is central to the success of digital transformation is so much easier to get. Employees with a certain level of understanding of digital technologies are easier to win over to support digital projects and can more effortlessly adopt a “beat the bot” employee attitude – which is also the title of a £5 million West Midlands pilot project aiming to help train the workers of the region for the jobs of the future.

Pitching new digital technologies to CEOs who are knowledgeable about them will be less of an educational project than a matter of winning your case substantiated by facts and specifications. Meanwhile, people in non-digital jobs can be more open to digital solutions as customers if they can use the underlying technology confidently, thus accelerating their uptake. But to be able to get the people aspect of digital transformation right, we need all hands on deck: educators, businesses, the government and people – or individuals – alike.  


By Zita Goldman

© Business Reporter 2020