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Assessing the disparate initiatives tackling the UK’s technology skills gap

As the UK’s skills gap widens, initiatives aim to ensure the population has the skills needed for roles now and in the future, but are these disparate efforts helping or hindering the cause?

As artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics technology begin to eliminate low-skilled jobs from the UK economy, it will become increasingly important to reskill the workforce with digital expertise.

But other, more immediate, drivers that are creating exponential growth in demand for digital skills at all levels include the fact that most startups now tend to be “digital native” organisations that could not exist without technology at their core.

To make matters even more difficult, many traditional organisations are also transforming themselves digitally as they try to remain relevant in a fast-changing market.  

Not surprisingly, then, a UK Commission for Employment and Skills report entitled Sector insights: Skills and performance challenges in the digital and creative sector estimated that as many as 1.2 million new digital and tech jobs would be created between 2015 and 2022.

Indeed, data from recruitment consultancy Hays UK’s salary survey indicates that 79% of employers are already unable to find suitable job candidates in high-demand areas such as data science, data analysis and cyber security. The same is also true in most areas of software development, especially where it relates to digital transformation, for example user interface and user experience expertise.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, says: “The skills gap is getting bigger and bigger as jobs growth gets bigger and bigger. The issue is there is not enough home-grown talent coming through, and university graduates often don’t have enough of the hard and soft skills that employers are looking for.”

This has resulted in a skills arms race, says Steve Lowe, chief technology officer at “We invent more ways to solve problems each year, so there’s more diversification and the breadth of technology gets wider all the time,” he says. “But one thing we’re not very good at in the IT industry is tidying up, so there’s always something left that’s 20 years old, and people haven’t migrated off it because they couldn’t make the business case.”

Worryingly, the digital skills issue is not just limited to the tech sector. Instead, it spans the UK economy as a whole. While the country has an overall digital literacy rate of 79%, figures vary widely across different regions. They also differ according to work status, income bracket, age and gender.

Disparate initiatives

Jessica Figueras, chief analyst at market research company Global Data, says: “There is not a problem with skills at the PhD level – it’s in intermediate and lower-skill occupations and in many small to medium-sized businesses where tackling the issue is much harder. So the UK faces a challenge with digital exclusion, which is a systemic issue and quite thorny.”

As a result, a confusingly large number of disparate initiatives have sprung up in recent years from government, educational institutions, social enterprises, charities and tech firms to try to boost the skills levels of various demographics for multiple different ends.

“You can’t treat the UK population as a single whole because it’s not monolithic – it’s made up of thousands of different groups,” says Figueras. “So different organisations, particularly in the charity sector, are working with targeted groups of people at the grassroots level to provide them with a personalised, individual approach.”

This is something that a single government initiative “wouldn’t have a hope in hell” of achieving because it would lack the crucial specialised knowledge of each individual group’s needs, she says.

James Milligan, director of Hays Digital Technology, agrees that it is no bad thing to have a “complex ecosystem” in place because of the range of innovative and creative solutions that can result. “A fragmented ecosystem has benefits because you get pockets of great practice that you can then take and scale elsewhere,” he says.

Then there is the tricky matter of needing to address future digital skills gaps that will be created in various shapes and forms by increasing levels of automation.

As Tech London Advocates’ Shaw points out: “People don’t all have to be coders. We’ll still need problem-solvers and creative thinkers, but they will need to understand the digital rather than the offline world. It’s a transformation we have to be prepared for.”

Shaw says he is “not particularly averse to disparate initiatives, which in many ways are a good thing”, but he believes there is value in creating an over-arching strategy to make them more cohesive.

Digital Skills Partnership

“Government agencies need to be better aligned,” he says. “We need more funding from government and the private sector, and we also need to understand what works and why it works in some situations but not others.”

In practice, such issues are already being explored under the auspices of the Digital Skills Partnership (DSP), which was launched in July 2017 under the government’s Digital Skills Strategy by the then minister for digital, culture, media and sport, Matt Hancock, who was replaced by Margot James in January 2018.

The DSP, which is chaired by Phil Smith, chair and non-executive director of Cisco UK and Ireland, has already held two board meetings and set up four workstreams that come together every six weeks. These cover:

Local communities: The aim here is to establish what is happening at local community level around the country as well as to understand their requirements and how best to help them.

National coherence: The goal is to take a high-level, national view of what is already taking place and what needs to occur. This group will cooperate with the local communities workstream to share information, devise ways of sharing local best practice and ensure national initiatives are rolled out effectively at local level.

Language and curriculum: Here it is about looking at existing terms and definitions in order to create a common framework as the basis of a taxonomy of digital skills. The eventual aim is to come up with a common language that everyone, including employers, can use and understand.

Social enterprises and small businesses: The intention is to work with these organisations to establish their digital skill levels, their requirements and how best to provide them with the skills they need.

Shaw, who sits on the DSP board, says: “The UK has to be prepared for technology creating new jobs, but also eliminating a lot of old ones. So the Digital Skills Partnership is trying to put its arms around it all, so that people know where to go to get involved in lifelong learning.”

Also, if it is clear on a nationwide basis not only what is taking place but also what kind of initiatives do or do not work, it becomes easier to make a case to both government and the private sector for money to support those activities that make a real difference, says Shaw.

Andy Parker, UK growth manager at online education provider Udacity, which is also involved in the DSP, agrees, saying its aim is ultimately “to make things more coherent”.

Unified strategy

“There are so many different activities going on across so many different sectors,” he says. “So we’re trying to identify a way not to consolidate them, but to create a unified strategy that will be beneficial for the whole country.”

The DSP is working towards a range of end-of-year targets, but is expected to start producing interim deliverables during 2018.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be enough, but it’s a great step in the right direction,” says Parker. “For it to really work, though, we need a mindset change – people have to take more ownership for developing their own skills across their career journey, and there has to be more large-scale upskilling programmes to train bigger sections of the population.”

In this context, Tech London’s Shaw believes the private sector has an important role to play in engaging with, and funding, digital skills development across the UK population as a whole. One useful activity here would be to send more business leaders into schools to engage both students and careers advisers by sharing insights into the future of work and the kinds of skills that will be required.

Read more about the IT skills gap

  • Tackling the lack of gender diversity in the tech industry could help close the skills gap, but there is a long way to go to solve either, says Eileen Burbidge.
  • Many tech graduates face unemployment because their skills do not meet employers’ requirements, say experts at Change Catalyst’s London Tech Inclusion event.

But even if such activity does succeed, Hays Digital’s Milligan is certain it will not be possible to close the digital skill gap over the next few years – or even the next decade.

“There will be a mismatch due to the legacy workforce, even if we manage to train people coming out of schools more effectively,” he says. “In fact, there’s going to be a mismatch for some time as we are going through a revolution right now and things are going to be in transition for some time. Who knows – this kind of change could even be the new normal.”

On a more positive note, Shaw points out that in boardrooms and city halls, awareness of the challenges ahead is much higher now than it was four or five years ago.

“But will it be enough, will things move sufficiently fast, will we retrain enough people?” he says. “Probably not, but at least if we can move the needle and get young people and their parents and teachers to understand why these skills are needed, and if we have great initiatives and the government and private sector working together, we will at least be in better shape to deal with the situation.”

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