Google embarks on a major training initiative to reduce the UK’s digital divide

Jonathan Owen reports on the digital skills crisis and Government delays that has prompted some of the biggest organisations in the UK to take action.

The illiteracy of millions of Britons in dealing with the digital world has prompted internet giant Google to embark on its biggest ever training effort in the United Kingdom to tackle the digital skills gap.

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Five hours of free digital training will be available to everyone in the UK from 2017. 

Pop-up training centres, branded as ‘Digital Garages’ will appear in 100 towns and cities across the country next year, offering face to face training in things such as using emails, searching the internet and making the most out of social media will be taught. 

Free online courses will also be made available, to cope with demand and also cater for people who prefer to learn remotely.

Some 80 per cent of British businesses believe they could grow faster if they had better digital skills, according to Matt Brittin, President Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Google.

The training will be for “anyone who wants to get the most out of the digital world – whether you’re an individual who is curious or a business that wants to grow,” he said.

“We need to connect with those people who feel marginalised by the way the world is moving,” Brittin added, in a speech at the CBI’s annual conference in London last week.

The move comes amid mounting frustration at the government’s slow response to the problem despite repeated calls for action from both business leaders and politicians.

The UK risks being left behind if the Government does not take more action to address the digital skills crisis, warned the House of Commons science and technology select committee in June. 

Its report highlighted the cost of the problem – with the digital skills gap costing the UK economy £63 billion a year in lost GDP. Almost one in four (23 per cent) Britons lack basic digital skills, and many teachers do not have the qualifications or the knowledge to teach the computing curriculum launched by the government in 2014, the report warned.

It also found that almost 90 per cent of new jobs require digital skills to some degree, with more than 70 per cent of employers unwilling to interview people who do not have basic IT skills.

Committee chair Nicola Blackwood MP, who has since been made a health minister, said at the time: “We need to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is leaving school or university with the digital skills that employers need.” She added: “The Government’s long-delayed Digital Strategy must now be published without delay, and it must deliver.”

That was five months ago and the long-awaited digital strategy – originally promised by Autumn 2015 in the form of a ‘digital transformation plan’ – has still not been released. This is despite assurances given by Government minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe in June that the digital strategy would be published “shortly—and I mean shortly, not at the end of the year.”

When TJ approached the Department for Culture Media and Sport asking why it has been repeatedly delayed and when it is likely to be released, a DCMS spokesperson said: “We are already among the most connected countries in the world with a globally successful digital economy. We will continue to work with industry to develop our strategy to boost the digital economy so it remains a key source of growth and productivity.”

Yet there is no indication of when the strategy will be published, let alone implemented. And a recent government announcement that adults will get training in basic digital skills has not been accompanied by a single extra penny in funding, since the new pledge will have to be funded from the existing adult education budget.

The scale of the task is vast, with 12.6 million people without basic digital skills, according to digital inclusion charity the Good Things Foundation (formerly known as the Tinder Foundation). “Obviously, this means that many don’t have the skills employers need to compete on a modern, global business platform,” a charity spokesperson told TJ.

The problem affects young people as well as older workers. “It’s one thing to know how to download apps and chat with friends on social media, it’s a very different thing to navigate your way around an online job application, intranets, and workplace email protocols,” they added.

It is an issue which goes far wider than individuals. Four out of ten small businesses and half of all charities do not have basic digital skills, which equates to 1.44m companies and almost 100,000 charities, according to the latest Lloyds Bank UK Business Digital Index which was released last month.

One of Britain’s biggest bosses, Ashok Vaswani, chief executive of Barclays UK, warned: “Failure to invest in digital skills for all in society is already hampering the UK’s ability to compete in the global digital economy and could risk innovation, productivity and growth in the future.”

The bank’s own research, for its digital development index, reveals that Britain “ranks bottom of the list when it comes to the quality of initiatives to improve workplace digital skills, along with Brazil, China and South Africa revealing a drop-off of digital skills when young people transition from education into the workforce.”

Vaswani added: “The current approach in the UK does not fully enable support for adults who might be looking to equip themselves with digital skills for a career progression or change.”

Companies need to create a “new culture of lifelong learning” led from the top. He added: “I learnt to code, and now our colleagues are doing the same!”

There is no time to waste, according to the Barclays boss. “With the pace of digital innovation quickening and the UK’s competitors in this race developing in tandem, we must invest now in digital skills to future proof the position of our businesses, economy and wider society,” he said.

A two-pronged approach is needed, commented Tony Glass, VP Corporate Sales, SkillSoft EMEA. In terms of today’s generation of workers, “organisations need to be looking at what digital skills they need and providing training programmes to existing employees in order to upskill them.”

He added: “We need to start as early as possible when it comes to implementing structured training programmes. This will require input and co-operation from the Government, schools, businesses and vendors to ensure that the workforce of tomorrow are being given the ability to learn digital skills they need.”



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