Gernot Krautberger - stock.adobe
Digital skills are not only a big part of every job and industry, they are embedded in our everyday lives.
But many people still live without the digital skills they need to navigate the modern world, and with Brexit on the horizon there is widespread concern about whether there will be a big enough tech talent pool once the UK can no longer rely on an easily available EU workforce.
This year saw an increased focus on how important creative skills will be for a digital future, as well as a continued focus on creating new talent.
A common theme in recent years when it comes to digital skills is the disconnect between the skills that people are learning and the skills that employers need.
IT graduates face high levels of unemployment, and experts claim it is because there is more focus on theory than on practical skills during learning.
Others say there is too much of an emphasis on coding in the UK computing curriculum, leaving out some of the softer skills needed to navigate the modern workplace.
The mismatch in the skills needed and the skills taught cannot be fixed by adapting the curriculum alone, so the then education secretary, Damian Hinds, said flexibility would be key in addressing industry needs in the future.
Not only will children in education today walk into roles that do not currently exist, but the pace of technology change is also unpredictable.
Apprenticeship minister Anne Milton also weighed in at the beginning of the year, claiming children need to understand how technology fits into the wider world, rather than just becoming “digital consumers”.
Alongside concern about developing the digital skills needed for the future, the number of tech roles advertised in the year before 2018 rocketed – and so did the salaries for these roles.
More is also expected from the people applying for these roles – 45% of data scientist roles expect candidates to have postgraduate qualifications.
Unsurprisingly, although these roles are growing in popularity, skills are still lagging behind. Research found that more than half of the global workforce will need new skills by 2022.
As part of the government’s work towards making the UK a digitally skilled nation, it announced the launch of an Institute of Coding to tackle the UK’s growing digital skills gap.
Partnerships and collaboration between 60 businesses, universities and industry experts will make up the project to develop programmes to help give graduates and those already in employment the skills needed to fill roles.
But there are concerns over the institute’s plans, which focus partly on introducing flexibility into the current education system, something many believe is too difficult.
Brexit weighed heavily on the minds of tech sector professionals in 2018, as many firms struggled to find skilled workers because of caps on tier 2 skilled visa applications.
A large number of EU workers have also chosen to leave the UK since the Brexit vote.
Near the beginning of the year, the limit for skilled visas was reached more quickly than usual, and the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that about 3,500 refused visas were for people with science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills.
Although the government worked to create more space for skilled working visas by making NHS doctors and nurses exempt from the cap, a government committee called for the cap on skilled visas to be lifted completely.
The number of people choosing to take Stem-based A-level subjects rose in 2018, giving the tech sector new hope for skilled workers in the future.
More girls took up GCSE computing this year – and overall, more students chose to take the computing GCSE than the previous year – but doubts remained over whether girls would continue with Stem past GCSE level.
Students choosing alternatives to the university route were also in decline , as the number of people choosing ICT apprenticeships dropped coming into 2018, despite the government introducing the apprenticeship levy.
It is widely known that part of the problem with the UK’s computing curriculum is the lack of confidence teachers have in delivering it.
The government announced a programme of support for computing teachers in 2018 as part of its target to train up to 8,000 computing teachers.
Later in the year, the government also announced an Initial Teacher Training Scholarship Programme to encourage more people to train as Stem teachers.
Further highlighting the imbalance between the technology industry, the education sector and the government, a majority of employers said they expected to see a tech skills shortage over the next year.
Despite this, only 10% of firms have started upskilling employees as automation begins replacing jobs, and worries over skills shortages continue.
Education providers have long since said that the technology industry should do more to support schools and teachers if it expects the skills gap to be filled.
In the summer of 2018, the education secretary called on tech firms to use technology to tackle the most common issues in schools, including reducing administration processes, improving efficiency and effectiveness of assessments, developing support for and supporting access and inclusion to education, and developing digital solutions that promote lifelong learning.
Schools also sometimes struggle to choose the technology which best solves their problems, something the technology sector could also help with.
As the year drew to a close, the focus shifted back to the lack of softer skills presented by many candidates and graduates looking for technology roles.
As automation seeks to remove some of the more mundane, repetitive tasks in organisations, soft skills become more important to ensure collaboration, communication and creativity – all of which are harder to automate.
Unfortunately, experts believe these soft skills represent the largest skills gap in the tech industry, and are the hardest to teach.