Bridging the digital skills gap is everyone’s responsibility

Employers, government and higher education must work together to provide lifelong learning opportunities needed for a modern labour force, argues Stephen Somerville 

July 15, 2019
Baby mountain goat jumping a gap

The Open University recently published a revealing report highlighting the extent of digital skills gaps and the impact they are having on organisations and their employees. Bridging the Digital Divide contains a number of stark findings – not least the fact that 37 per cent of workplace roles are expected to alter significantly in the next five years.

Add to this the report’s warnings that nine in 10 organisations across Great Britain currently lack digital skills and that more than half of organisations in Great Britain (56 per cent) report that skills shortages have already negatively impacted productivity, and the picture we are left with is a bleak one.

All around us there are worrying signs that we are not ready for the digital reality in which we find ourselves. The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee’s Digital Skills Crisis report highlights that 23 per cent of the adult population in the UK lacks basic digital skills, which costs the national economy an estimated £63 billion per year in lost GDP.

Nesta, a foundation supporting innovation in a number of sectors, reveals in its 2018 report The Future of Skills: Employment in 2030 how one-tenth of the workforce are in occupations that are likely to grow as a percentage of the workforce. Meanwhile, one-fifth are in occupations that are likely to shrink. And in a similar vein, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 report: The Future of Jobs and Skills, forecasts that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will be working in job roles that do not yet exist.

Who holds responsibility for plugging this gap? The short answer: we all do.

The individual has at least some responsibility to ensure that they are well equipped for the digital world. There are loads of online resources, such as FutureLearn (a provider of online skills and degree courses), and everything from YouTube and TED Talks to online programmes from universities and technology companies to help us learn the skills for the modern workplace.

The rise in self-directed learning is testament to the fact that many people are already taking personal responsibility for this, with younger generations in particular showing an appetite for this form of learning. LinkedIn, for example, has reported that nearly half of Gen Z respondents prefer a fully self-directed and independent approach to learning.

Employers also have a responsibility. According to Lloyds Bank’s Digital Index 2019 report, only one third (34 per cent) of employees say their workplace gives them support with digital skills. And it’s not just training. Employers also have a responsibility to identify the areas of their organisation most likely to require re-thinking and re-purposing, and ensure the requisite training is in place.

And, of course, educators have a role – and not just in the finite period of time during one’s schooling or university career. The days of getting your education and then learning from experience in the workplace are over. Education providers need to think beyond the traditional degree as education now needs to be modular, portable and accessible throughout an individual’s career.

There are some great examples of collaborative approaches to tackling the skills gap, with universities playing a crucial role. Foremost among them is The Institute of Coding, a collaboration between the UK Government, 33 universities, big players in the tech industry, SMEs, industry groups, experts in non-traditional learning and professional bodies. The consortium aims to strengthen the UK’s position globally in computing and IT, address the UK digital skills gap and create opportunities for more computer science graduates.

Among the partners is the University of Leeds, which has partnered with FutureLearn to create new online courses to support the next generation of digital talent. The IoC guide to kick starting your career with 21C skills, will focus on digital employability skills for people in the 18-to-25 age group and will be available later this year.

There are other positive examples too. The University of the Arts London’s new Creative Computing Institute has been given £581,000 by the IoC for its Creative Solutions to Digital Transformation project and will work with Lancaster University, Goldsmiths University and FutureLearn to develop a bespoke online learning programme that can help transform business in media, manufacturing and engineering through creative digital technologies.

Universities then can be part of the change. They too can be, and in many cases already are, providers of lifelong learning. They can digitise parts of their offering to ensure they are meeting the needs of an increasingly digitised world. FutureLearn already partners with a quarter of the world’s leading universities and has seen first-hand the commitment of our partners to these endeavours. Yes, there is a digital skills gap – but it’s one that we can bridge together.

Stephen Somerville is managing director government and employer partnerships at FutureLearn.

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