Digital skills vital to UK businesses but graduate skills are poor

Senior executives claim digital skills are important to UK business but finding graduates with the skills is tough, according to MCA survey

Nearly all senior executives (94%) view digital skills as very important to their business - but a fifth said the quality of digital skills among graduates is below average, according to a Management Consultancies Association (MCA) survey of Britain’s boardrooms.

During the recent MCA Annual Debate, David Willetts, the former minister for universities and science, said: “There are still too many horrific decisions at 16 in our unusually specialised system, where people give up subjects that no other western advanced country would give-up.

"In this digital world, having the English that enables you to communicate well, a second language, some basic understanding of maths and physics, and a broader base for longer will be very valuable.”

Elizabeth Varley, chief executive of startup support firm Tech Hub, said: “The idea of recognising when something isn’t working rather than feeling so invested in this decision you’ve made that you can’t say to your boss, ‘I think we’ve got this wrong I would rather try it this way’ - that is a skill that we’re not teaching. We’re afraid that we will be penalised either socially or financially, and we need to get over that in order to innovate better.”

The survey found that 91% of respondents believe business leaders do not get the concept of digital and there is limited understanding of its role and potential across boardrooms.

Rachel Barton, managing director for customer strategy at Accenture, said: “Boards do recognise that digital is important. But I do not believe that boards understand it and they certainly do not recognise the fundamental shift it is going to have in their organisation beyond the introduction of a new channel.”

Willetts said the government has an active role to play in digital: “When we look at ‘the internet of things’ for example – and you want your BMW to communicate with your fridge; to communicate with your thermostat - in order to make all of this to happen you need amazing standards and interconnectivity.  

“So high-level science that drives significant capabilities and sufficient investment to ensure that you have a role in standards setting are the two things that governments can also do.”

The panelists present at the debate also argued that government can do a lot to bring digital closer to citizens.

Carlo Gagliardi of consultancy PwC said personal data could become a personal asset and a valuable currency. 

He said: “Today most of the digital data that we create is actually legally ours but the companies that hold this data can do a lot of things with it. But if people get control of it, then it can become like currency that they deploy in order to achieve a specific goal, or to get better goods and services.

“I believe central government could play a key role in making people more aware that data's potential for them could translate into some valuable gains in just a few years, and in some cases even earlier.”

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