Does UK government pledge to close the digital skills gap go far enough?

In its long-awaited Levelling Up white paper, the UK government promises to boost access to high-quality skills training. But is that enough to plug the digital skills gap?

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The UK government this month finally published its much-anticipated Levelling Up white paper, prompting a round of complaints about numerous errors, spelling and grammar mistakes, and accusations that some passages weren lifted from Wikipedia. The contents have also been scrutinised by those working in industries directly impacted by the promises.

For the technology sector, a key takeaway is the commitment from the government to tackle the UK’s growing digital skills shortage.

In the white paper, the government promised that by 2030, the number of people successfully completing high-quality skills training will have increased in every region of the UK. In England, that would mean 200,000 more people successfully completing high-quality skills training annually, driven by 80,000 more completing courses in the lowest skilled areas.

The funding of courses and the governance of colleges would also be overhauled, with Local Skills Improvement Plans to be rolled out across England. The goal: to give local employers a pool of workers and stakeholders a statutory role in planning skills training needed in their region.

The government also plans to create a new data hub to highlight in-demand skills and a Future Skills Unit at the Department for Education to identify the type of education and training needed in different areas of England. (Data from that project will be used across central and local government and be accessible to providers and the public.)

Paul Geddes, CEO at QA, a technology skills, training and talent organisation, said the inclusion of skills training is a welcome move. But he said addressing the widening skills gap in the UK can't rely on government alone.

“We also need to talk about where employers fit in all of this," he said. "The digital skills gap is not just a problem, it is an impending crisis. It’s an issue that’s affecting countries around the world and one that, if we don’t get a grip on it in the near future, could have significant repercussions for the UK economy. Data shows that job vacancies focused on digital and tech skills across the UK are exploding."

Geddes notes that in January 2020 in the North West, 19,000 technology jobs were unfilled — a number that by last month had swollen to more than 34,000. Those vacancies represent more than 30% of the entire workforce employed in tech and digital roles in the region. Over the same period, the East Midlands and Wales have seen vacancies increase by more than 100%.

While the obvious answer for companies facing a skills shortage might be to recruit their way out of it, Geddes said that's not always easy.

Competition among employers looking to attract the best tech talent is fierce, Geddes said, a situation that has been made more difficult because almost every business is now a tech business. Relying on a limited supply of ready-skilled workers to plug gaps isn’t realistic, and often does little more than move a finite source of skills from employer to employer.

“There just aren’t the numbers available to address these issues through new hires alone,” he said. ”It’s really vital that employers also focus [on] re-skilling existing employees.”

He noted the government has made previous plans to tackle the skills shortage, including increased targets for people in apprenticeships across the country and the National Skills Fund, which was set up in November 2020.

“The big effort now should be on maintaining that momentum, creating greater visibility of the various opportunities available for school leavers so that they can make the right choices when it comes to their education and careers,” Geddes said.

Investment in education

At the start of February, the Department for Education stressed that through the commitments in the Levelling Up white paper, “education will be at the heart of major new reforms set to give every child and adult the skills they need to fulfil their potential, no matter where they live.”

Research published last week by KX, a real-time data analytics firm in the UK, found that despite the growing importance of digital skills and the popularity of coding, 43% of students say it is not taught in schools. The report also found that young people know that digital skills are important, with 44% saying a proficiency in data analytics will be important to their future career (and 28% calling it a core life skill).

There is still a disconnect between the skills being taught and the skills employers want and need, Geddes said. According to a report by the CBI in 2019, 45% of businesses rank work readiness as the most important factor they seek when recruiting, while 44% of employers feel young people leaving school, college, or university are not "work ready."

He also noted that the KX survey found male students still outnumber their female counterparts in STEM (science, technology engineering and maths) subjects. According to the report, 51% of male students can already write or are planning to learn a computer programming language at some point, versus only 36% of female students. That;'s despite the fact slightly more female students (61%) believe learning to code improves job prospects; 57% of male students feel that way.

“There’s an important point here about nurturing interest and curiosity in tech and digital during school years,” Geddes said. "To overcome skills shortages, we need to ensure that as diverse a range of young people as possible are motivated to pursue tech-related roles."

In addition to the lack of digital skills education in most schools, less than one-fifth of school and university leavers have the level of work experience the government recommends. To tackle the disparity, the government wants to  double the capacity of the Supported Internship programme to provide thousands more young people with the skills to secure and sustain paid employment.

Geddes said it's important for the tech sector to play a role. “Successfully plugging the skills gap means employers thinking strategically about their needs, rather than just focusing on short-term solutions. They must embrace the opportunities open to them through the apprenticeship levy while ensuring they are acting on skills development for existing employees, rather than relying only on attracting new hires,” he said.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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