Spreading digital skills and opening up the tech industry

As technology advances and the nature of work adapts and changes, the importance of digital skills to those in work and those seeking work goes beyond job retention and the opening up of wider economic and social opportunity for the individual. They are imperative for future-proofing the economy for the country too.

Whilst new tech and Silicon Valley-esque ventures have become the face of the digital sector, the use by more traditional industries and increasingly by SMEs of new technologies means that the continual updating of digital skills has quickly become a necessity.

The realisation of proficiency in baseline digital skills must be intertwined with any programmes to upskill those already in work, who are attempting to build on existing capability and catch up with technological advancement. In their report Improving Digital Skills for Employability, the Good Things Foundation reinforce the need for this upskilling by noting that ‘people need to update their skills as much as they need to update their devices’. Whilst we have seen over the past two years, a serious attempt led by the third sector, supported in part by government, to widen access to devices, there still remains a serious gap in the baseline digital skills of users of these devices, that is harming the potential of those users.

The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Skills Index 2020 found that 22% did not have the ‘essential digital skills for life’ and 16% could not complete the full foundation digital tasks. Whilst age is the main factor, and organisations like the Good Things Foundation have been doing essential work trying to train older, less connected generations on the devices that they would receive, there is a clear socio-economic inequality dimension too. Only 5% of those with a household income over £50,000 did not have suitable digital skills for life, whereas the percentage of those lacking these digital skills goes as high as 36% of those earning under £17,499.

This clear socioeconomic inequality not only affects the individuals’ motivation to become more connected, but their employment potential too. In affecting their ability to get into and to stay in work and given the difficulty to access digital skills training once you have moved on from Further Education, the need for a more a more accessible, widespread programme of digital skills training is, essential.

In their No One Left Behind report detailing the UK’s Digital Divide in 2021, Vodafone found that 42% of those who are not in employment rated their skills as basic. This compared to 18% of people who are employed, with those who rated their digital skills as being ‘advanced’ having a similar percentage point disparity. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report published in October 2020 noted how in the UK, 24% of businesses that responded said that the reskilling/upskilling of their workforce for new and emerging technologies takes over a year. Given the technology updates every 18 months when computer processing speeds double, not only does it require the training to become almost circular, but it widens the gap between those in employment and training, and those not, when it is inaccessible to the wider public.

These are the challenges that the tech sector faces – from ensuring those not in employment are able to access training that would be necessary for them to engage in future workplaces, to the reskilling and upskilling of those already in work whilst dealing with the deskilling that emerges in existing workforces through advances in new technologies. Investment in a joined up, and easily navigable digital skills training is not only investment in the individuals’ capability to find and keep employment, but in the potential of the wider economy too, and it is an opportunity the Government must grasp with both hands.

Julie Elliott
All Party Parliamentary Group on Digital Skills

Julie Elliott