How the UK can avoid a ‘digital skills shortage disaster’

A report from The Learning & Work Institute, released today, found that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE in the UK has dropped 40% since 2015, and while 70% of young people expect investment in on-the-job digital skills training, only half of surveyed employers are able to provide this.

What’s more, less than half of British employers believe that young people are leaving full-time education with sufficient advanced digital skills, while 76% of companies think profitability would be impacted by a lack of digital skills.

Meanwhile, research conducted by Accenture found that demand for skills relating to the cloud, AI and robotics has risen in the past year.

Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann, chief executive of WorldSkills UK, the company that commissioned the study, revealed the following four reasons for the rising digital skills shortage in the country:

  • a lack of clearly-defined job roles in certain fields;
  • a lack of understanding and guidance about potential career paths;
  • a lack of relatable role models;
  • difficulty in making many technical professions seem appealing to young people, especially young women.

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Bentley-Gockmann told the BBC: “I think there’s a challenge with the teachers themselves not understanding the possible careers – there’s a big opportunity for employers to go into schools to explain the range of job opportunities and help join the dots between what young people study in school and what that could lead to as a career.

“It’s important for employers to do this to ensure the future talent pipeline.”

“Top-of-the-funnel” intervention needed

To ensure that the digital skills gap in the UK doesn’t continue to grow, Adam Philpott, EMEA President at McAfee, believes that “organisations need to encourage a ‘top-of-the-funnel’ intervention and investment from government organisations”.

Philpott continued: “We must also collaborate across the industry to create concrete measures focused on closing the gap. One example of this is bringing talent in further down the line, by up-skilling employees internally or running returnship programmes for those looking for a career change.

“We must ensure, however, that we have more talent available in the first place. This is why we should encourage those interested in IT or cyber security as early as possible and provide a school pathway into the industry.

“Another way to bring skills into the industry is by targeting talent outside IT and security. This promotes greater diversity and fosters an environment of innovation, where employees are encouraged to think differently.”

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Tech development to play key role

While the decrease in IT subject participation at GCSE level has showed that engagement methods for young people need improvement, there is hope to be found in the continuous evolution of tech, according to Phil Sorsky, senior vice-president, service providers for EMEA at CommScope.

“In the telecoms sector, new technologies are making it possible to improve the speed and cost of fibre network deployments across the UK while tackling the widening skills gap,” explained Sorsky.

“For example, arming field technicians and engineers with better data on designing a network can reduce time-consuming decision making and human error.

“It is also important for providers to create easy-to-digest materials that aid networks when rolling out new connections, such as fibre, in densely populated areas. We’re seeing the likes of new planning tools emerge that can help engineers quickly identify the best network design topology for any project, walk them through the various network design aspects that need to be considered, and explain the available options and the pros and cons of each.

“Ensuring all areas of our country have Superfast Broadband must be a priority, as we look ahead to a future ever more reliant on connectivity – and closing the skills gap will play a crucial role.”

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.