The UK risks falling further behind on digital skills

Brid-Aine Parnell

Monday 15 August 2016

The lack of a coherent government strategy on addressing the digital skills gap is leaving millions without basic IT capabilities and is costing the economy billions.

A British parliamentary committee has warned that urgent action is needed to address the UK’s ongoing digital skills crisis, with millions of adults lacking even basic IT skills.

The UK has been waiting for the publication of the government’s digital strategy, laying out just how it plans to address a skills shortage that could seriously hamper future economic growth in the region. However, the ongoing political turmoil over the EU referendum is likely to push back the delayed strategy further.

The size of the skills shortage

MPs from the Commons Science and Technology Committee found that 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills and just under half that number have never even used the internet.

“While the government is to be commended for the actions taken so far… stubborn digital exclusion and systemic problems with digital education and training need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the government’s forthcoming digital strategy,” the report said.

The country needs a further 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017, according to a report by telecoms company O2 entitled The Future Digital Skills Needs of the UK Economy.

But according to figures released by the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, over the decade from 2002 to 2012, there was a 23.3 per cent drop in the number of students in computer science at undergraduate level and a 33.8 per cent fall in graduate students. This gap is costing the UK economy £63bn a year.

Addressing the shortfall

There are a number of ways that the government can help address this shortfall but it won’t be enough to educate and train British citizens. There needs to be easily accessible employment visas for overseas workers as well, so technology companies in the UK can fill posts now.

Industry body TechUK wants to see the qualifying requirements for the new IT roles in the Shortage Occupation List under the Tier 2 visa reviewed, to make it easier for companies to hire in the staff they need.

After that, there needs to be a concerted focus on ensuring that the right education and training are available to adults and children in Britain.

“A number of the recommendations in the report echo the tech sector’s concerns, and the vast majority of TechUK members already believe their commercial operations are hindered by a lack of digital skills,” says TechUK associate director of policy Charlotte Holloway.

“In particular, the government must ensure that the outcomes of the Apprenticeship Levy are fully geared towards developing the high-skilled digital workforce of the future and that implementation of the levy meets the needs of some of the most innovative companies in the UK.”

TechUK believes that digital skills need to be a core component of all of the three million apprenticeship roles the government is hoping to create by 2020 and that the Apprenticeship Levy be available to retrain existing staff.

Starting with school

However, apprenticeships won’t be enough for future generations if the IT provisions at school level don’t improve. The committee report found that 22 per cent of IT equipment in schools is ineffective and just 35 per cent of computer science teachers had a relevant degree. Meanwhile, only 70 per cent of the necessary number of computer science teachers have been recruited.

“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,” says the Commons Science and Technology Committee chair Nicola Blackwood.

The report recommends that an interim solution to the teacher shortfall could be to put the role on the ‘shortage occupations’ list, allowing schools to recruit from anywhere in the world. 

The future

Blackwood urged the government to publish its digital strategy “without delay”. And while culture secretary and digital economy minister Ed Vaizey said in March that the strategy was ready, the government decided to postpone its release until after the EU referendum. Since this resulted in a majority wanting to leave the EU, it is likely the primary focus for the foreseeable future will be coming up with a plan for Britain’s exit.

Despite the political upheaval, work on the digital skills crisis has to go on or the UK risks endangering the strong tech sector it has grown so far. Volunteer organisations, such as Code Club, and private sector initiatives, such as General Assembly, are seeking to plug the gap but without government intervention, Britain will fall behind in key areas.

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