Mind the gap: How can UK businesses close the chasmic digital skills gap?

Mind the gap: How can UK businesses close the chasmic digital skills gap?

Alexia Pedersen explores how the UK is heading towards a disastrous digital skills shortage and describes what can be done to avoid this catastrophe.

It’s no secret that, with every day that passes, the UK is becoming more and more digital. This is true in whatever way you look at it: how we work, how we interact with each other and, more recently in the news, how we defend our country and people’s rights. The British Army is set to be cut down to 72,500 troops by 2025, to be replaced by – you guessed it – technology.

The UK has been on this digital pathway for years now. Despite that, though, the country is heading towards a digital skills shortage disaster. Many people might point towards the pandemic and its various disruptions to explain this predicament. However, this skills shortage has been in the pipeline for years.

This, therefore, begs the question: if it was so clear that the UK economy was headed in a digital direction, how have we reached the point of being on the cusp of a digital skills shortage disaster? And, perhaps more importantly, how can we turn the tide?

Employer responsibility

Employers cannot take full responsibility for the impending digital skills shortage in the UK. The education system also has a role to play and, concerningly, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped by 40% since 2015. With demand for digital skills only growing, this number should be rising by 40%, not dropping. Undoubtably, more needs to be done at an educational level to encourage young people to learn digital skills.

However, there is certainly more that employers can do. While less than half of British employers think that young people are leaving full-time education with the appropriate digital skills, only half of employers are able to provide the necessary training to remedy this. With 70% of young people expecting employers to provide digital training, the desire to learn is there. It’s the solutions which are lacking.

The reasons for this are likely multiple. It might come down to the cost of providing training, trepidation over its effectiveness and concerns that training might take time away from ‘real’, results-driven work. However, these fears are ultimately connected to an old way of training which, frankly, has become outdated very quickly for a multitude of reasons. Just as businesses have adapted to a new way of working, they must similarly change the way they see and provide training for their employees.

Flexible working needs flexible learning

Before the pandemic, when the majority of employees worked in an office, training would often take a physical form. Employers might invite a specialist into the office or have someone from within the team provide a training session. Anyone who has experienced this will know that these training sessions can take anything from half an hour to multiple days for full courses and there’s rarely a guarantee that it will be helpful or even relevant to everyone in the room. Understandably, employers are always going to be wary of taking time out of their staff’s day or week for something which might or might not be productive.

The pandemic and, for many, a resulting shift to working from home has changed the way people learn. Employees can no longer group together in one room to receive a training session. The response from many businesses has been to either run the same training sessions as before, but virtually, or to put training on the backburner until offices reopen again. In truth, both of these solutions will only serve to intensify the digital skills shortage we are seeing.

The third solution is to trial a new way of learning, which is more personalised and hands-on. In the past few years, online learning has become far more sophisticated than ever before. Using the appropriate platforms, businesses can empower their employees to learn in the flow of work. This means connecting personal skill shortages, exposed by individual tasks, with direct learning solutions. For example, if an employee has been tasked with re-programming a technological system, instead of having multiple people take part in a one-hour training session, that individual employee can take responsibility for their own learning. Advanced learning platforms will enable the employee to search for tailored training for the specific problem they are facing before applying what they have learned to the task itself. That is how businesses turn training into a productivity tool.

This new way of learning can be applied to something as complicated as programming or a task as simple as creating a Zoom meeting. While many of us will have been working from home for over a year now, our proficiency on day-to-day platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Microsoft Office is likely very basic. Therefore, if businesses want to make work-from-home more permanent and increase productivity, their employees must be skilled at using the appropriate platforms. With 70% of young people keen to receive training from their employers, it’s clear that the desire to learn and improve is there. Employers must take advantage of this and provide their staff with the appropriate tools to make those improvements.

The news that the UK is on the verge of a digital skills shortage disaster must act as a wake-up call for employers. It’s crucial that businesses provide their employees with personalised training, which allows them to learn in the flow of work and apply that training immediately to real tasks. Not only will this help the UK workforce to advance their digital skillset, but it will also provide a clear bridge between training and results. The learning platforms which enable this type of training exist now. Given that the problem UK businesses face is immediate, there’s no reason or excuse as to why the solution shouldn’t be as well.


Alexia Pedersen is EMEA Vice-President, O’Reilly

© Business Reporter 2021

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