The importance of bridging the UK’s digital skills gap

The long-term promise of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee must be augmented with short-term interventions, argues Paul Geddes.

During the last Queen’s Speech, it was announced that the Government will introduce a post-COVID skills overhaul. Key to this new initiative is the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, which will give every adult access to a flexible loan for higher-level education and training useable at any point in their lives, and the Skills Accelerator programme.

This will provide employers with a statutory role in planning publicly-funded training, resulting in stronger partnerships between employers and training and education providers to ensure that future talent meets local needs.

The promise to revolutionise skills and training opportunities comes at a crucial point for the UK for two reasons. Firstly, research from the Department of National Statistics found that adult government-funded further education and skills participation decreased by 15% from 2019 to 2020.

Secondly, the UK is facing a serious digital skills gap. A recent report from the Open University shows that nine in 10 UK organisations admit to having a shortage of digital skills.

High quality, well-paid jobs should be accessible to everyone and digital skills are a key enabler

The introduction of these initiatives is a once in a generation opportunity to reverse the UK’s growing digital skills gap, level up opportunities for individuals across the country and help to reposition UK PLC in the global digital economy.

Welcomed progress

For a long time discussion around investing in adult skills has been missing in action, especially in relation to digital skills. Before the pandemic the digital skills gap was a concern. Now, with the rapid changes in digital transformation that have taken place during lockdown, that demand is greater than ever, increasing the premium placed on tech talent.

Boris Johnson said of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee “free courses will give adults the expertise they need to find new, better jobs”. The initiatives outlined in the Queen’s Speech, and the introduction of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, are all part of the Government’s plan to drive inclusive economic growth.

This is especially important when it comes to the digital sector. High quality, well-paid jobs should be accessible to everyone and digital skills are a key enabler of this. Tech training can offer a pathway to some of the best paid jobs, with starting salaries in many cases averaging £30,000 and above.

And, more tech talent will, in turn, create greater economic growth. 

Moving the dial

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill has the potential to address the digital skills gap. By making education accessible to all age groups, more people have the opportunity to reskill into technology or level up in existing jobs, particularly if the remit can be extended to include apprenticeships or industry certifications.

However, to encourage take up, we also need to address the misconception that technology careers are only open to people who already have digital skills. As the Lifetime Skills Guarantee rolls out, it will be important that the government makes a concerted effort to reach and incentivise more people, encouraging a wider and more diverse part of the population to consider upskilling in technology.   

The need for tech skills now

While this strategy is undeniably a positive step in the right direction, change won’t happen overnight. It’s going to be some time before we see the impact it has on society and the economy. To achieve the Government’s ultimate aim of economic growth, we need to see more immediate short-term interventions such as the incentive payments for apprenticeships.

I have seen success stories such as apprentice Alex Wilson, who switched from carpet fitting to a Level 3 Infrastructure Technician apprenticeship with Microsoft cloud provider, Transparity. Alex started his apprenticeship at the beginning of February and is already on a 3-month secondment as a 1st Line Support Technician.

Further Government support and education campaigns are needed to remind individuals and employers that the opportunity to upskill or reskill at any age is most definitely possible.

As well as promoting inclusive economic growth, there is an opportunity to truly build the UK as a tech leader and a destination of choice for people looking to build tech careers. The government needs to further incentivise employers to commit to tech apprenticeships and industry certifications.

It must also raise awareness that a tech career is accessible to people with attitude and aptitude, not just those with STEM degrees and programming experience. Ultimately, the Lifetime Skills Guarantee presents a huge opportunity in the long term but there remains an urgent need and opportunity for upskilling in the here and now.


About the author

Paul Geddes is CEO of QA Ltd


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