Closing the digital gap

Our education system needs to be the first port of call when assessing how to plug the digital skills gap, believes Sheila Flavell, Chair of the Institute of Coding’s industry advisory board

The digital skills gap presents major challenges for employers and education systems alike. The shortfall of digitally-adept workers is causing tremendous problems for businesses, and in turn will have a severe consequences for economic growth in the long term.
Recent research shows the problem getting worse, not better. It has been estimated that the current gap is costing the UK £141 billion in GDP growth, a figure that is only set to rise if action is not taken soon.

A recent report from professional networking site LinkedIn has found that four of 2018’s top five emerging jobs were in the machine learning and developing industry, requiring technical skills in subjects like cryptocurrency and blockchain. In terms of CVs, it has been stated that skills like artificial intelligence (AI) and Software as a Service (SaaS) are a crucial element for surviving in a digitally led landscape. It is apparent that the influx of new technological advancements is also set to change jobs as we know them.
In fact, recent research from the Open University found that as many as 40 per cent of jobs are expected to change significantly or become redundant in the next five years due to technology and automation. The research also found that nearly 90 per cent of organisations admit their staff lack digital skills. This report comes just after the Bank of England declared that productivity is around 20 per cent below where it would have been if it had continued at the rate before the financial crash happened. It is deeply concerning that these productivity levels, a lack of digital skills and rising demand for technology and data experts will only rapidly increase unless we act now to implement it at early stages of development.
Changing industries

Throughout the remainder of 2019, many industries are set to see digital transformation disrupt existing workforces. In particular, farming and agriculture is thought to see technology revolutionise the industry, with 57 per cent of farmers believing emerging technology will greatly impact their business in the next five years, according to a study by the National Farm Research Unit. Another industry struggling under the pressure of technology advancements is insurance. A recent global survey found that insurers are increasingly struggling to find the necessary staff with only 25 per cent prepared to use AI. However, this survey also found that only four per cent of insurers are planning to increase spending in re-skilling programmes and that is where one part of the problematic digital skills crisis begins.

Starting from school

In order to successfully plug the digital skills gap, more needs to be done before employees reach the stage of beginning their careers and entering the world of work. Employers are starting to look for employees who have the necessary skills that their organisation needs now and will need for the future. The process of plugging the digital skills gap should begin at our education systems in order for students to learn and understand the necessary requirements of the digital world of work.
The process of encouraging this is to advertise these types of subjects at school such as ICT and coding. This means the national curriculum needs to begin introducing these courses as a matter of urgency to ensure the future is not bleak for digital skills.
Teachers are a fantastic advocate for highlighting the importance of their students learning interesting and important skills that will give them better job prospects. From a young age, many students will start to have an idea of a potential field they would like to pursue through, based on a combination of the subjects in school that they have excelled at or enjoy the most, and understand the potential windows of opportunity that those might provide. Therefore, it is essential that we begin to develop, nurture and encourage an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) subjects within schools.

A downward spiral

It is increasingly concerning that the take-up of important courses like computing in schools is actually on a downward spiral. The reality is that we simply must do more to inspire and ignite students’ passion for the subjects which could lead them to a fantastic, long-lasting STEM career later in life.

A recent annual study from the University of Roehampton found that fewer 16-year-olds are obtaining a computing qualification and that schools have cut back on the hours teaching the subject. The research found that in 2018, 130,000 students got a GCSE in either computing or ICT, down from 140,000 the year before. This decline in numbers is being put down to the change in the curriculum whereby this year the ICT exam is no longer an option. The debate about the removal of the ICT GCSE qualification is still rife, as well as the number of hours spent teaching coding falling 31 per cent from 2012-2017. However despite these changes, the qualification was replaced with a more challenging computer science course which, in theory, could help the issues we are facing with a lack of skills in the workforce. However this course is set to be much more difficult, meaning this could eliminate students or put them off taking it.

The gender issue

Another issue which is still prevalent within the education system is this idea that STEM-related subjects are a ‘boys-only-club’. This means our education system must help to encourage girls to recognise the exciting opportunities that these courses can offer, as well as the boys. By placing emphasis on inspiring girls, we can work towards not only plugging the digital skills gap but helping the gender disparity issues that are incredibly prominent in STEM related subjects.
Our education system needs to be our first port of call when we look at what we can do to plug the digital skills gap. We all need to work hard to design and build more exciting courses and going the extra mile to promote the fantastic opportunities that a career in STEM can bring. It’s a huge shame to see that the interest in these vital subjects seem to be waning at a time when our economy couldn’t require them more.
However, it cannot just be down to the education system, particularly at GCSE level as that is merely the first step to having a life-long career in a heavily changing industry. We need to begin to see more collaboration between higher education institutions, who often run set courses on computer science and coding, work in collaboration with the industries who require these skills the most to nurture the next generation of their talent pool. We must begin to see students have the opportunity to work in an environment alongside their degree that will allow them to learn the complications of the trade and understand the modern workplace.

We also need to recognise that existing employees within an industry cannot be forgotten about as the digital environment changes around them. Upskilling the current workforce is important for managing existing resources and offering those who are willing to learn, a chance to grow within the digital age and develop their career.

If we are able to direct the curriculum towards a digitally led world, nurture talent with the close collaboration between businesses and higher education institutions and work to upskill our existing talent, I believe we will start to plug the digital skills gap. Through these three methods, they can assist each other in pushing our digital economy forward to open new opportunities for the future generations to come.

Sheila Flavell is COO at FDM Group and Chair of the industry advisory board for the Institute of Coding


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