MPs warn of UK digital skills crisis - 745,000 extra workers needed

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez June 12, 2016
The Science and Technology Committee has found that 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills.

Digital Divide
MPs on the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee have said that urgent action is required from industry, schools, universities and government to help tackle the UK’s digital skills crisis, which it claims has the potential to damage the nation’s productivity and economic competitiveness.

The results of the report released this week reflect the evidence that we at diginomica see on a regular basis, with both vendors and buyers frequently telling us that they are struggling to recruit talent across a number of skills and areas.

And whilst the Committee praises the government for its changes to the computing curriculum in schools and the widespread take-up of digital apprenticeships, it warned that their impact may not be evident for a “generation” and that further action needs to be taken now.

The report criticises the government for delaying its publication of its Digital Strategy, which has been due for some time now, stating that it “should be published without further delay” and needs to go further than drawing together cross-government digital activity.

The MPs suggest that it “needs to offer genuine leadership and vision for the future of digital skills and our economy”.

Science and Technology Committee Chair, Nicola Blackwood MP said:

The UK leads Europe on tech, but we need to take concerted action to avoid falling behind. We need to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is leaving school or university with the digital skills that employers need.

The Government deserves credit for action taken so far but it needs to go much further and faster. We need action on visas, vocational training and putting digital skills at the heart of modern apprenticeships.

The Government's long-delayed Digital Strategy must now be published without delay, and it must deliver. The Government has introduce a range of measures to help, particularly by expanding the scale of the apprenticeship programme and introducing a new computer curriculum in schools, but it needs urgently to present a vision and coherent strategy that brings these together.

Skills gap

The Committee found that there is a digital divide, where up to 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills, with an estimated 5.8 million people having never used the internet at all. This skills gap is believed to be costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP, the report states.

MPs found that the skills gap presents itself at all stages in the education and training pipeline, from schools to the workplace. For example, an audit of IT equipment in schools found that 22% of it was ineffective.

Equally, only 35% of ICT teachers hold a relevant qualification and government has been able to recruit only 70% of the required number of computer science teachers into eh profession.

Worryingly, the UK needs to find 745,000 additional workers with digital skills to meet rising demand from employers by 2017, given that almost 90% of new jobs require digital skills to some degree.

The report also highlighted that 93% of tech companies find that the digital skills gap affects their commercial operations and that there is growing demand for skills in areas such as cyber security, cloud, mobile and data analytics.

Surprisingly though, some 13% of computer science students are still unemployed six months after graduating.

The report states:

It is essential for the UK to have the IT professionals it needs to build a robust digital economy. The average advertised salary in digital roles is just under £50,000—36% higher than the national average. The workforce, from highly skilled scientists to workers in manufacturing, are affected by the rapid changes in the use of technology in the workplace.

There is a lack of awareness of career opportunities within the digital sector, sometimes reflecting skill and gender stereotypes around the types of roles that exist. Many organisations are not maximising the potential of new digital technologies or utilising the skills and talents of their employees in the most productive way.

Almost 50% of employers have a digital skills gap, which includes specialist technical roles.

MPs recommend that the government should work with the Tech Partnership, an organisation focused on developing digital skills, to develop industry-led, vocationally focused digital careers advice in universities, and encourage universities to provide code conversion courses to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds toe enter the tech sector.

They also believe that digital should be a core component, alongside maths and english, in all apprenticeships.

Digital Strategy

The Committee also had some firm words for the Government Digital Service, which has been due to publish its long awaited Digital Strategy for some time.

MPs noted that given the delay to the strategy’s publication, that there is “doubt” that it will give sufficient weight to the vital areas for change that are highlighted in the report.

The Committee said:

The gap between the digital skills that children and young people take into their working lives and the missing skills actually needed for the digital economy demonstrate a long-running weakness in the UK’s approach to developing digital skills. Initiatives currently in train will help to fill that gap, but the forthcoming Strategy should be more than just a catalogue of initiatives. It needs also to be more than just a programme of work for Government departments.

We need to change the UK’s cultural perception of digital technology. By setting out a vision for the future, to be delivered by collaborative work between industry, educators and Government, the Strategy should be more than the “aspirational” document that ministers propose—it should be a Strategy that actually delivers.

The Digital Strategy should be published without further delay. It should include dynamic mapping of public sector and industry initiatives and public spending on digital skills against the economic demand for those skills, and benchmarks and defined outcomes that are necessary to measure levels of success and decide on next steps. There should be goals for developing better basic digital skills, for increasing the number and diversity of students studying computer science, and for increasing digital apprenticeships and for fostering digital champions.

There should be a plan for greater awareness and scaling up of business-led initiatives,

strategies for addressing the shortage of skills of particular strategic importance to the UK economy and how these capabilities should be introduced in workforce training, strategies for recruiting and retaining computer science teachers in schools, and a framework through which the private sector could more readily play a collaborative role with communities and local authorities in initiatives to raise digital skills in local SMEs.

My take

Almost everyone I interview complains about the digital skills shortage - both vendors and buyers. Everyone is having to compete.

However, we can’t wait ten years for the current younger generation to get skilled up through skill and through university. We need a response now, which I believe will most likely have to come from industry.

As we reported last week, there is demand for organisations like Year Up here in the UK, which could act as training and recruitment firms that supply industry with the skills they need in just under a year. Those are the sorts of solutions we need.

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