Digital skills: filling in the gaps

Digital skills: filling in the gaps

Alexia Pedersen at O’Reilly describes the gaps at the heart of the UK’s digital skills shortage

It’s recently been reported that the UK is on the verge of a disastrous shortage of digital skills, with the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE dropping by 15% since 2015. Meanwhile, at work, only half of employers are currently able to provide the necessary training for their employees to bridge this digital skills gap. 

I recently wrote an article for Business Reporter discussing how businesses can adapt their training programmes to bridge this digital skills divide. Positioning training as a productivity tool and adapting it to new ways of working is the key. 

However, an important question for both businesses and schools to answer is: exactly what digital skills do people need to succeed in the modern world of work and has this changed in the last year? If the skills gap is to be closed, businesses and schools will have to work together to answer this question. 

Different wavelengths

The burden of responsibility for the UK’s digital skills shortage crisis lies with both businesses and the education system. Currently, it seems that there is a disconnect between the two. The report highlighting the skills shortage found that, as less people take IT subjects at GCSE, businesses are increasingly demanding these very IT skills. 

In truth, we didn’t need a report to tell us that demand for digital skills is on the rise. Words such as AI, cloud and analytics have become almost inseparable from the notion of business. As a result, new jobs have risen to the surface. Businesses now need data scientists, software developers and market research analysts – all jobs which demand IT skills. 

However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find jobs that don’t require IT skills. The days of being able to pretend that you’re ‘Microsoft Office proficient’ and then subsequently getting away with not having to use those tools are over. In fact, these ‘softer’ IT skills are vital in today’s job market. 

Many businesses have shifted to a work-from-home model in the last year, with an increasing number set to continue with this even when they no longer have to. For people entering the job market and for people already in the job market, digital communication skills will be crucial. This means being able to effectively use collaboration tools, such as Teams, Zoom and Slack. In addition to this, with people working remotely on company-issued laptops, cybersecurity skills and awareness are set to become more important. 

For businesses, the challenge now is to communicate the importance of these skills to younger people looking to enter the job market. The best way for them to do this is to work collaboratively with the education system. 

Singing off the same hymn sheet

In the past, school IT courses tended to be very basic. They often revolved around how to use Microsoft Office at a very surface level. Today’s IT courses have arguably gone to the other side of the spectrum and are now too focused on hard tech skills, which are necessary to become a data scientist or a programmer, not necessarily for non-technical jobs. It’s important, from an education level, that a balance is found.

This is where businesses can help. Companies can work with schools to shape their IT courses, ensuring that they’re teaching students the most relevant and useful skills. At the same time, as many companies already do, it’s important for businesses to take part in career days at schools and help students understand what skills they need to succeed in today’s world of work.

By highlighting the importance of these skills on students, we could see a much-needed uptick in the number of people taking IT courses. Once this generation enters the workforce, businesses can then provide them with the learning platforms to keep updating and evolving their skills. 

There is, of course, a financial component that needs to be addressed here as well. As we’ve seen in the effort to enable home-schooling, some schools are more financially equipped for these changes than others. Therefore, some schools may lack the funds to provide their students with the necessary technology and software to learn these digital skills. Government investment and, where possible, business investment will be necessary to avoid growing inequalities. 

Beyond education, businesses must provide their employees with an environment that encourages continued learning. Even if people enter the job market with the appropriate digital skills, it will not stop their skills from becoming outdated as time goes on.

For example, two years ago, who would have known that Zoom and Teams would become such an integral part of the working day? Many of us may consider ourselves experts on these channels now, but that’s only been through continued use and learning. Businesses must enable their employees to do the same with other skills. It’s all about learning in the flow of work, as I explained in my previous article here

Ultimately, businesses and the education system want the same thing: to ensure that people leave school with the necessary skills to succeed in the job market. It’s clear that the skills businesses demand from their employees are constantly changing and becoming increasingly digital.

To avoid a wider digital skills gap opening up, companies must communicate these requirements to schools and their pupils. It’s then on the schools and the Government to adapt IT courses appropriately.

If done effectively, young people will be able to enter the job market with a stronger and more relevant skillset. The onus is then on businesses to enable continued learning in the workplace, ensuring their employees are always up-to-date with the skills they need.


Alexia Pedersen is EMEA Vice-President, O’Reilly

Main image courtesy iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2021

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