Demand for digital skills has increased dramatically in recent years as the workplace has become digitised and technological innovation has accelerated. The shift towards remote working during the pandemic only fuelled greater demand for these skills, and this trend is set to continue, with many large firms pivoting to a long term ‘hybrid’ strategy of in-person and virtual working.
While demand has soared, the supply of skills continues to lag behind. The ongoing shortage in digital skills in the UK is leaving organisations unable to recruit the tech talent they need. Yet, despite creating a major challenge for the tech industry, this dearth of skills presents an opportunity for the sector to widen its talent pool. Targeted training initiatives can shrink the skills gap while also giving people from diverse backgrounds greater opportunities to enter the tech sector.
How big is the problem?
To understand the impact of the digital skills gap, we need to quantify the problem. The World Economic Forum 2020 report found that only 61% of the working age population in the UK has digital skills. The 2021 Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index, an annual study of UK digital skills measured against the Government’s Essential Digital Skills framework, found that digital engagement had been boosted by the pandemic, but that certain groups still lacked digital skills. The study found that 31% of unemployed people have ‘low’ or ‘very low’ digital capability compared to 19% of people in the workforce.
These studies point towards one obvious root cause of the digital skills shortage: a lack of training opportunities. The World Economic Forum 2020 report found that while 94% of UK businesses are looking to accelerate the digitisation of work processes, only 49% are looking to accelerate the implementation of upskilling or reskilling programmes. Further back in the pipeline of talent, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015, according to the Learning & Work Institute. Too few people are being provided with opportunities and encouragement to learn digital skills, and this is creating a shortage of talent.
The consequences of a technical skills shortage
The digital skill shortage has far-reaching consequences. For businesses, recruitment is particularly difficult as the skills shortage has created a highly competitive environment in which it is difficult to find and hire the right talent. Software developers were the most sought-after candidates from UK employers in 2019 and demand outweighed supply for the role 10 times over.
Failure to find candidates has a tangible impact for businesses. FDM Group found that the lack of digitally skilled workers is a major pain point for almost two thirds of UK businesses in 2021. Indeed, whole projects can be jeopardised by a lack of technical expertise. In November 2020, Virgin Media warned that the skills gap could disrupt the roll out of UK broadband due to a lack of broadband engineers available to carry out the work.
Training is the answer
The solution to the skills gap lies in training initiatives and more opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to gain digital skills. Apprenticeships are one way to boost digital skills while also supporting social mobility. They allow adults from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be unable to afford attending university, to gain skills while earning a salary. Other initiatives might target specific groups – such as women who have been out of the workforce for an extended period or people from other underrepresented backgrounds – to give them opportunities to learn the skills needed to enter the tech industry.
Examples of existing schemes include NTT DATA UK’s route2work initiative, which funds a scholarship programme for women to enrol in digital skills academies. The initiative aims to encourage diversity in the tech sector, in which women currently make up a mere 19% of the workforce, dropping to 3% for black women and 5% for Asian women. Other examples include the ongoing work of the Institute of Coding in enrolling 900,000 learners on more than 150 accessible and flexible digital skills courses – all supported by the UK government.
As well as equipping those outside the tech sector with digital skills, it’s important to nurture existing talent and ensure people within the sector have opportunities to expand their digital skillset. Opportunities should be made available to those from non-technical backgrounds, as well as employees with technical expertise, to increase skills across the board. In the longer term, educating children in digital skills at a young age will expand the digital aptitude of the workforce and encourage more young people to consider tech roles in the future.
The future of work
As companies increasingly digitise their work processes and as demand for technological solutions grows, digital skills will only become more sought after. In the future, we will see fewer and fewer roles that accept recruits with no digital training at all, and even employees with considerable technical training will be required to continually upskill to keep up with the pace of innovation.
To meet the demands of the future workforce, training – from early years education through to retraining programmes for people well into their careers – will be vital to ensure the digital skills gap does not hold back organisations and stunt the UK economy. While expanding training to meet soaring demand is a challenge, it is also a unique opportunity to diversify the talent pool. Organisations can embrace this opportunity, and reap the benefits of a more diverse and more skilled workforce.