How to mitigate the digital skills crunch?
In the UK, demand is soaring for specific IT skills including AI, robotics, cybersecurity and cloud computing. But according to research by the Learning & Work Institute, there has been a 40% drop in the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE since 2015. Houston, we have a problem: a mismatch between supply and demand that threatens to slow down technological innovation by leaving enterprises bereft of skilled people to perform the digital ‘grunt work’ of bringing projects to fruition. In fact, it is already happening. Nesta Analysis showed that in 2018 digital skills shortages were already costing the UK economy £2 billion a year.
The government has made digital skills a key priority, pumping out white papers and school-based IT programs to entice youngsters into digital. There are also many private and NGO initiatives. Here’s one example in cybersecurity. But is it a case of leading young horses to water and not being able to make them drink?
It seems that a majority of young employees expect to be taught IT skills on the job. But a) not all employers can offer such training, and b) if they do, it is likely to be general IT skills rather than those focused on a specific, in-demand skillset. Then there is the gender gap. Three out of five young males say they are interested in a digital career whereas only two out of five females express interest.
We are not talking about digital poverty and the digital divide here. Lack of access to computers and the internet is a separate socio-economic issue. Rather, we are looking at the gap between the essential digital skills needed on the majority of workplaces and the advanced skillsets that can drive forward R&D and production in certain key areas of the modern economy. Most young people are confident in their own general digital literacy, but as one business owner in the Learning & Work Institute report said, “Many young people aren’t given the information required to truly understand what the opportunities associated with a career with digital skills is about.”
So what is being done, and what more can be done? The government’s UK Digital Strategy 2017 had two main aims: to create new specialist digital routes in technical education, and to make the Further Education system more employer-led. A new Digital Strategy is due for publication in 2021 or 2022, depending on COVID impact on its development. What problems must it address?
Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann, chief executive of WorldSkills UK, a charity focusing on giving young people the skills they need to enter the workforce, told the BBC there are four main areas to address:
- a lack of clearly-defined job roles in certain fields
- a lack of understanding and guidance about potential career paths
- a lack of relatable role models
- a difficulty in making many technical professions seem appealing to young people, especially young women.
"I think there's a challenge with the teachers themselves not understanding the possible careers - there's a big opportunity for employers to go into schools to explain the range of job opportunities and help join the dots between what young people study in school and what that could lead to as a career," Dr Bentley-Gockmann told the BBC.
"It's important for employers to do this to ensure the future talent pipeline."