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15 January 2021

How Covid-19 exposed the UK’s digital skills crisis

Fundamental economic weaknesses can't be solved by telling graduates to “learn to code”.

By Greg Noone

In choosing to pursue a degree in studio and live music production, Kelsey Brooks was following a familiar adage: study what you love, and make it into a career. When she graduated last June, however, the possibility of doing so seemed, at best, remote.

“I’m a qualified audio engineer, but obviously there are no gigs, no shows,” says Brooks. “I didn’t really have anything to do with myself.”

Brooks was one of thousands of students that graduated this summer into an economy that no longer had any place for them. In addition to the music industry, the pandemic had laid waste to swathes of economic activity that relied on people mixing closely together in public spaces, from pubs and bars, to clubs and restaurants. Those businesses at a greater remove, meanwhile, were forced to institute remote working practices and quickly master technologies like video conferencing and cloud computing.

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This was mostly a story of resilience for UK business, says Julian David, chief executive of the trade body techUK. “A large part of the British economy did manage to move online,” says David. “The digital infrastructure, more or less, stood up.” Even so, the shock of the switch to remote working revealed a yawning digital skills gap. According to research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, 65 per cent of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) believe that the pandemic has revealed crucial skills gaps in their businesses, of which digital skills were the most common; within that segment, almost 95 per cent believed that these deficiencies were significant enough to drag on future growth.

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A major concern for businesses has been the lack of expertise in data analytics, says the Confederation for British Industry (CBI)’s director for innovation and digital, Felicity Burch. The CBI’s own research before the crisis revealed that “about 90 per cent of workers will need some form of reskilling by 2030”, says Burch. “That will require some fairly serious additional investment of about £13bn per year.”

This need has been compounded by the greater emphasis that businesses of all stripes have been placing on data analytics during the pandemic. According to a study conducted by the CBI in December, however, 56 per cent of companies surveyed believed that they did not have the expertise to properly interpret such data. “The knock-on impact of that is, because so many businesses are trying to attract people with analytics capabilities and cloud computing skills, the salaries of those jobs have risen,” explains Burch. This, in turn, “is putting pressure on businesses and their ability to make the most of the technology that they’ve already invested in”.

How can this pressure be alleviated? Margins for companies large and small, after all, continue to remain extremely tight, with many businesses placing more attention on preventing future redundancies than investing in internal retraining programmes. Part of the solution, says Burch, should come in greater government support for internal short-form courses. Businesses also need to be supported in their acquisition of new software.

“It’s why we’ve been calling on the government to develop ‘productivity vouchers,’” explains Burch. “A bit like the ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme, but instead of spending money in a restaurant, it would be to help businesses invest in new technologies, [with] the vouchers… provided through tech providers.”

Part of the answer also seems to reside in state intervention to expand digital literacy. In December, the government committed to investing an additional £43m into its National Skills Fund, funding boot camps across the UK aiming to improve the skills of learners aged 19 or over.

These initiatives sit alongside private training providers like the IN4.0 Talent Academy in Manchester. It was here that Brooks chose to improve her chances of employment by enrolling on the organisation’s AWS cloud computing course. Now equipped with a qualification in cloud computing, she works as a junior cloud engineer at the academy that trained her, shepherding new learners onto the course while pursuing a master’s degree in computer science.

“When I was in school, I was always told, ‘We’re training you now for the jobs that don’t yet exist,’” Brooks recalls. “Maybe if we’d known that this [role] would have existed five or ten years ago, we might have been training to do this already.”

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While Brooks’ experience in digital upskilling has left her feeling she will have more opportunities in the post-pandemic economy, her example can’t be followed by everyone. Indeed, the digital skills gap that has emerged only highlights fundamental weaknesses in the UK’s economy, problems which cannot be solved by telling graduates to “learn to code”.

“There’s nine million people who can’t use the internet without support,” explains Helen Milner, chief executive of the Good Things Foundation, a charity that caters for the digitally excluded. “We know there are over 13 million who lack the central digital skills for work.”

According to the charity’s own research, this problem affects multiple demographics, ages and income strata. Those currently earning over £50,000 a year, for example, are almost 40 per cent more likely to have basic digital skills compared to those earning less than £17,499. Nearly half of those who need help to use the internet, meanwhile, are under the age of 60.

Not only does this automatically exclude swathes of the workforce from the increasing number of jobs that require digital skills, but also makes it much harder for them to complete online applications for work that doesn’t. For those in the workforce who require digital upskilling, budgets in their organisations remain too tight to permit large-scale investment in training programmes. As such, the Good Things Foundation has remained busy throughout the pandemic in assisting employees in SMEs and local government organisations to digitally upskill.

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“It’s really important to understand that there’s this large group of people, millions and millions of people, who may have a smartphone, for example, may be using social media, but couldn’t really function and fully survive doing more complicated things…in the workplace,” explains Milner. If the government is serious about levelling up the British economy, she says, it has to make a concerted effort to eliminate this digital illiteracy.

“There won’t be enough jobs to go around,” says Milner. “And the people who lack the digital skills are going to be the ones who are at the bottom of the pile.”

Another group that risks being left behind are older workers. Much of the government’s effort to upskill learners has concentrated on those in their early twenties, says Stuart Lewis, chief executive of Rest Less, an online community for the over-50s. Currently, there’s a paucity of training programmes and support for older staff who do require some form of digital upskilling.

“There’s no support for 50-year-olds trying to reskill in the same way as there is for young twentysomethings,” says Lewis. “It’s much, much harder to find training programmes and support to enable [them] to retrain, even though they’re perfectly capable.”

Existing digital talent in that older age bracket is also in danger of being overlooked. Such has been the experience of “Andy”, aged 53, who took a sabbatical in late 2019 after several years as a chief information officer in the public sector. With over two decades of practical experience in coding, his digital skills are indisputable. Current hiring methods, however, including an emphasis on specific qualifications, have thwarted his attempts to re-enter the workforce.

“I don’t have an MBA, so there’s certain jobs I can’t go for because I don’t tick the MBA box,” says Andy, even though his experience managing large public and private organisations more than makes up for the lack of a certificate. “Just straight away, I don’t get into the interview stage. And I think that doesn’t take into account the fact that education has changed now.”

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Any effort to improve digital commercial inclusion, however, will only have a permanent effect if a holistic attitude towards development is adopted both by business and by local and national governments, says Julian David. Only by formulating benchmarks for the availability of expertise, digital infrastructure and investment – what techUK calls “local digital capital” – can a framework for comparison between regions be established, which can then be used to target regional investment and bring more people into the digital workforce.

“Equally on skills, we’ve been saying to them [the government], one of the biggest challenges people have is they can’t actually see how to get into the tech industry and its associated digital sectors,” says David. “So, could we please have a sort of map? Better signposting? Could we put more funding into the further education space for the technicians at the entry level?”

What is fundamentally lacking, argues David, is a national plan. While certain local and devolved governments are pursuing their own initiatives to improve digital inclusion, their full potential can only be reached with some measure of coordination. This is all the more important if the pattern of remote work in the UK is to continue, as several surveys have suggested it might. Quite what that plan will look like remains to be seen. What it must do, however, is broaden the popular definition of who is digitally skilled, lest more people get left behind.