Addressing the digital skills gap

The skills crisis is here for the forseeable future and to thrive, says Paul Geddes we all have to change our mindset

Given the recent narrative around the digital skills gap, one could be forgiven for thinking it cannot be overcome, but this simply isn’t the case. The Government is taking note. New initiatives were introduced during the Queen’s Speech in early 2021, including a Lifetime Skills Guarantee Policy to encourage training and upskilling throughout people’s lives. In the Autumn Spending Review, Chancellor Rishi Sunak committed £3.8bn to skills, with funding to quadruple access to skills bootcamps. However, while this commitment is encouraging, the number of technology vacancies in the UK is currently still 42% higher than it was before the pandemic. So, where does the solution lie? As the Chancellor quoted in his spending review speech, according to the Industrial Strategy Council, 80% of people who will be in the workforce in 2030 are already employed. But with the skill set required for the modern enterprise changing, analysis of future requirements shows that as much as half of the current working population lacks the digital skills required. At one end of the spectrum this can be simple data skills, but increasingly the skills needed are more advanced – such as those needed to harness the power of cloud computing or AI. This leaves us in a situation where at least two-thirds of the workforce will need reskilling in the next nine years and at least five million will go through a radical change in employment. 

Already, we are witnessing large corporations take note. IBM recently announced that it plans to provide equip 30 million people with the digital skills needed for roles in cyber security, AI and cloud computing over the next nine years. Such schemes and incentives are exactly what is required but alongside the investment and processes put in place by companies to make this happen, there needs to be support for overcoming the emotional barriers too. Even in a post-Covid context, and in what is increasingly being referred to as the ‘great resignation’, reskilling is unlikely to have featured in the career plans of millions of people across the UK. And by working to alter the cultural attitudes and structural support for reskilling, this will become possible. 

Rethinking reskilling, a cultural reset 
An individual’s career and their identity have long been linked; not just because it defines a large portion of our time. Occupations have historically run-in families and define whole communities – and a collapse in one sector can have far-reaching social consequences for decades to come. The challenge faced by post-industrial and former mining towns in the UK, or the rust belt in the US are just two obvious examples. Having a long-term career provides economic and social comfort. It doesn’t matter what the cold economic rationale says – the  idea of leaving that security and embarking on something new – is incredibly daunting. 

At least two-thirds of the workforce will need reskilling in the next nine years and at least five million will go through a radical change in employment

To overcome this, we need to push for a cultural shift on attitudes to reskilling. As the pandemic made clear, the employment landscape can change rapidly. In the UK, 750,000 jobs were lost between March and August 2020, with many industries still struggling to bounce back. In addition, it is predicted that a third of jobs could be at risk of automation by 2030. But technology could create millions more jobs than it displaces – as long as we have the right skills needed to use those technologies. It is in the context of this anxiety, which positioning reskilling as a natural step in the progression of our working lives, holds great potential. 

From the ground up
Employers need to play their part – looking within to build skills and embracing re-skilling of their workforce. However only Government has the capacity to change direction and attitudes at the scale and pace required. Here are three concrete actions Government can make that will change perceptions of re-skilling. 

Firstly, it should recognise the social value of individual skill development by investing in schemes that incentivise and support workers to reskill. This will principally be financial. The biggest barrier to retaining isn’t the cost of the training itself, but the opportunity cost of taking time off work. Government needs to ensure that workers have access to financial support through this period. 

Secondly, Government needs to work furiously to close the gap between employers and the education sector (specifically FE and HE providers). The skilling needs will vary over time, and the right path for an individual will differ. Government must therefore resist the temptation to set a re-skilling agenda by central diktat, and instead ensure that the education sector’s incentives are appropriately aligned to support long-term employment outcomes. For instance, as called for in the Learning for Life report by CBI, Job Centres could become one-stop shops, ‘Jobs and Skills Hubs’ to support retraining, the introduction of career development accounts could support unemployed individuals and those with the biggest retaining needs. 

Finally, there is a hearts and minds role for Government using its nationwide communications engine. Those advocating re-skilling will undoubtedly face flak from those who feel threatened by it – who feel that re-skilling is an attack on their vocation and even their identity. That is precisely why government needs to act – to normalise mobility and embrace re-skilling. 

Incentivising employers
Removing the financial barriers will require collaboration between the Government and employers too. For instance, skills bootcamps offers great opportunity, and saw a quadrupling of funding in the Chancellor’s review this October. These bootcamps keep employers heavily involved in the design and delivery of learning and could create a pipeline of employees with future ready skills. From a learner’s point of view, personal investment in a skills bootcamp with positive career prospects at the end is very likely to make the prospect of reskilling far more appealing.  

There are other opportunities too, for instance, making the most of the apprenticeship levy to employ and train more junior staff. Level up your team in digital skills where it’s needed most. Many organisations don’t put these funds to use to grow their digital skills, instead spending them on management programmes or even worse leave them unspent altogether.

Creating a culture that prioritises learning 
Beyond the role of Government, there is huge potential for employers to rethink an approach to reskilling, one that puts culture at its heart. It’s no secret that employees are far more likely to stay with a company for twice as long, and feel more invested, if adequate attention has been paid to their training. 
There are examples of business already doing this with great success.

For Nationwide Building Society, the shift towards digital banking was used as an opportunity to re-skill internal staff and recruit from the local community based on aptitude and attitude rather than rely entirely on early careers talent. The company delivered a 12-week programme that re-skilled more than 100 individuals, with participants who completed the course securing roles within Nationwide’s Technology Development Group. Amazon took a similar approach, reskilling hundreds of employees from across roles in their warehouses, customer services teams and beyond in the essential skills they need to transition into high-demand, entry-level software roles through its Technical Academy. 

Take it to the boardroom 
Finally, HR and learning and development (L&D) practices have a huge role to play in driving cultural change around reskilling. There is an opportunity for HR and L&D professionals to take this conversation to the boardroom, and emphasise the social, cultural, and business benefits of investment in reskilling. Investment by organisations now can help to create a culture where retraining does not feel so risky and enables individuals to detangle themselves from the belief that a job can be one’s identity.

Collaboration is key 
The time for action is now. The scale of the digital skills gap is clear, and a whole ecosystem approach is necessary if the current workforce is to be prepared for the jobs of tomorrow. For the Government, it is essential that the recent £3.8bn spending announcement is backed with concrete action to support individuals and employers. Employers have a role to play too, by altering how they think about seeking new skills and where these can come from. If action is taken from both these stakeholders, then we can look forward to a future with learning at the heart of all careers, and the potential to reskill not costly nor scary, but a natural step in the progression of our working lives.

Paul Geddes is CEO of QA 

[Quote] At least two-thirds of the workforce will need reskilling in the next nine years and at least five million will go through a radical change in employment


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