The importance of the workforce having adequate digital skills in order to support and maintain economic growth and productivity levels is well understood.
In fact, basic digital skills are now considered as essential as literacy and numeracy in the modern world. A huge 92% of UK employers consider such expertise crucial for their staff to have, while just over four out of five job adverts require it, according to a report entitled ‘Disconnected: Exploring the Digital Skills Gap'.
But the study, conducted by charity WorldSkills UK, the Learning & Work Institute and engineering skills provider Enginuity, also revealed that the workforce of 23% of the 1,000 employers questioned did not have such basic digital skills in place.
In addition, even though 27% indicated how imperative it was that the majority of their employees had advanced digital skills, it was not the reality in 37% of cases. Unfortunately, the situation only looks set to get worse too, with a significant three out of five businesses expecting their reliance on such expertise to grow over the next five years.
One organization that is working hard to tackle the digital skills gap locally though is local authority, Brent. During the pandemic, the London Borough saw the number of local unemployment benefit claimants jump to 10% - more than double the national average of 4.6% - while one in five adults is currently without basic digital skills, making it harder for them to find new jobs.
As a result, the Council started working with IT consultancy and services provider Infosys, which was already engaged in a digital transformation programme to boost its back office efficiency, to see how it could address the issue. Council leader Muhammed Butt, explains:
We were looking at how we could increase access to employment and education through the likes of our adult education college, Brent Start, but also how to take it to the next level and give opportunities to everyone in the area. We needed someone with the skills and ability to support us at scale, and Infosys had Springboard, which fitted the bill.
A Springboard to regeneration and renewal
Springboard is a cloud-based and mobile digital learning platform, which was developed and is managed by Infosys. It provides access for residents on a free-of-charge basis to around 220 courses, some of which go up to Level 2. They cover particular technologies, emerging job roles and professional and behavioral skills, while individual modules range from how to send effective emails, keep safe online and how to code.
About 1,000 residents have signed up since the platform was launched in October after they were identified as potential beneficiaries by community-based organizations, such as schools, charities and Mutual Aid groups.
Some 8,000 people out of its total population of 350,000 have also been identified who have no access to digital technology at all. As a result, Brent is in the process of rolling out laptops or tablets and a two-year broadband and IT support package to enable them to take advantage of Springboard too. Butt explains:
It's part of our regeneration and renewal strategy. We're trying to ensure people have the opportunity to get into employment because we want all of Brent to benefit. The opportunities offered by digital are vast as it's part of so many areas of life these days, so Brent Springboard is about ensuring people have the right skills to access them. But Springboard is just one of the tools in our toolbox to enable renewal.
Other such tools include the Brent Start adult education college, which is the next stepping stone in skills terms after Springboard. Another is the Brent Works employment support platform, which provides residents with advice and guidance in finding work and advertises training, jobs and apprenticeships both within the borough and across the capital.
A further spoke in the wheel is the Council's BuyBrent online marketplace, whose aim is to encourage people to shop locally. The mobile app makes it easy for consumers to find products and services, book appointments and access discounts offered by the 100 or so local businesses listed.
To help local traders move online, meanwhile, Brent is also offering to create an online presence for them and equip them with the digital skills they need to manage it. The support package is being offered on a free-of-charge basis for the first year, after which time it will be reviewed. Butt explains the rationale:
It's about helping local companies diversify their business rather than being dependent solely on local trade as having an online presence means they can compete with other companies. But it's also about supporting residents because as their business grows, they'll be key to creating more local job opportunities.
Digital skills problem: SOLVD
Another organization that is working to upskill its local small-to-medium enterprise (SME) community, meanwhile, is the University of Wolverhampton. The aim of its £2.2 million SOLVD initiative, which is part-funded by itself, Telford & Wrekin Council, the UK government's Midlands Engine fund and the European Union's European Regional Development Fund, is to support businesses in Shropshire adopting digital technologies as tools for business growth.
After undertaking a pilot project in 2017 to establish local needs, it was discovered that the biggest local skills gaps lay in areas, such as data science and analytics, artificial intelligence and immersive technologies.
As a result, the University's SOLVD team, which consists of six people, plus different members of the Faculty of Science and Engineering as required, offers each SME 12 hours of advice and support. This guidance includes making them aware of relevant technology, how it could be used to improve their business or solve a problem, and how best to go about implementing it. It also includes research and development help to support them in developing ideas to create new products.
Amar Aggoun, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering and Professor of Visual Computing at the University, explains the rationale:
A lot of SMEs would like to start using digital technology but don't have the knowhow, which is where our support comes in. Advanced manufacturing is one of the key areas here. There are also areas around health, but Shropshire is mainly agricultural so there's a focus there too.
Since the initiative started in July 2019, the University has helped about 17 SMEs, many of which are start-ups. But the aim is to expand the project, which officially ends in June 2022, to the end of that year because of delays brought about by the pandemic. As Aggoun points out the scheme has brought huge value to the University and its students too:
It helps us understand business needs so we can tailor education to what our students require. We also have knowledge transfer partnerships, which includes students working in internships on projects for companies that are involved. So it's 100% about strengthening the local economy as they'll most likely employ local graduates in future. There's a need for skilled people and hopefully we can provide that by helping businesses create opportunities for our students to go into.
While central government schemes to boost digital skills are undoubtedly useful, local bodies have the advantage of knowing the requirements of their local population and being able to cater to their specific needs. Which is why such initiatives can be so powerful.