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Young people know digital skills will be important for their future careers, but many are not sure they have the more complex digital skills a workplace might demand of them, according to research by the Learning and Work Institute in partnership with Enginuity and WorldSkills UK.
The report claimed 88% of young people think digital skills will be important for their future careers, and 62% said they have the basic digital skills employers might need, such as the ability to communicate digitally or use common software.
But when it comes to more complex digital skills, such as coding or using specialist software, only 18% of young people said they thought they had these more advanced skills employers might need.
Neil Bentley-Gockmann, CEO of WorldSkills UK, suggested in the report’s foreword that the study found a “mismatch between supply and demand” when it comes to the skills employers need versus the skills education is providing.
“The majority of our employer poll believe that their reliance on digital skills will increase in the future, yet analysis of digital skills provision in education shows that the numbers training in digital skills is on a downward trend,” he said.
A large majority of businesses said it’s important for employees in their organisation to have basic digital skills, and digital skills are featured in 82% of job vacancies.
But demand for digital skills is moving beyond this basic level. More than a quarter of firms said a majority of employees need both basic digital skills and in-depth specialist knowledge in a more technical area, with 60% of employers saying their need for these advanced digital skills is likely to increase in the next five years.
These demands are even higher in London, where 34% of firms said a majority of their workers require advanced skills.
Young people don’t feel like they have these skills, and research found skills gaps at this more advanced level already exist.
Around a quarter of firms said their current talent lacks the basic digital skills they need, and 37% said their current workforce lacks the advanced digital skills needed.
Digital skills gaps, and a lack of appropriate skills in the tech sector, are not new issues, but employers are concerned not enough is being done to close future skills gaps by providing digital skills to young people that will line up with what employers are likely to demand in the future.
Learning and Work Institute found half of young people are interested in a job which requires advanced digital skills, and 70% expect an employer to invest in their skills.
But when looking to tackle digital skills gaps in their organisations, only 47% of employers said they deployed on-the-job training to fill skills gaps, while 33% said they fixed their skills gaps by hiring people with the appropriate skills to plug the gap.
Sean Farrington, senior vice-president of EMEA for online education firm Pluralsight, said firms cannot solely rely on skills employees have learnt “even a few years ago, let alone when at school or university” and that organisations should be developing internal cultures which promote ongoing learning and development to go alongside ongoing tech advancements.
“These latest stats epitomise the tech skills challenge the UK is currently facing,” he said. “Our own research, carried out during the first lockdown, echoes this sentiment. We found that 31% of the UK workforce were not provided the opportunity to upskill by their employer, despite a quarter wanting the chance to access online learning courses. Clearly, the appetite for learning is there – and organisations must do more to capitalise on it.”
The government has developed a number of plans and strategies to increase digital skills in both children and adults in recent years, especially with its claims the UK’s post-coronavirus future hinges upon technology.
In early 2021, the government outlined plans to make gaining essential digital skills in adulthood easier, and expressed plans to continue developing a more blended model for education to make digital and remote learning more viable, building on what has been learnt during the pandemic.
As a technical and more vocational alternative to A-levels, the government developed T-level qualifications, one of the first of which is in digital, launched in September 2020.
But at GCSE level there has been a drop in the number of students taking IT-based subjects – while the number of students taking ICT GCSEs has dropped as a result of the subject being phased out, Learning and Work Institute claimed the increase in people taking computer science GCSEs since 2015 has not yet made up the difference – and between 2015 and 2020 there has been a 5% drop in students taking IT-based subjects at A-Level, though there was a slight year-on-year increase between 2019 and 2020.
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Learning and Work Institute’s report also claimed the number of hours spent teaching computing subjects in secondary schools dropped by 36% between 2012 and 2017.
The report claims the pandemic has disproportionately affected young people, not only disrupting education but also causing job losses, with three in five jobs lost belong to those between 16 and 24.
But when it comes to technology apprenticeships, the target demographic skews older, with more than 40% of the 18,200 ICT-based apprenticeships started in 2019/20 aimed at people aged 25 or over, meaning for tech-based apprenticeships, which are already only around one in every 20 apprenticeships available, people are likely to be older when they apply as opposed to apprenticeships more generally where the opposite is the case.
At a higher level, people starting undergraduate or postgraduate education in computer science courses has been steadily increasing over the last five years.
Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president at online course provider Skillsoft, said of the results: “Businesses are already struggling to find enough talent to close the digital skills gap and students will soon be entering one of the most competitive job markets in recent memory.
“Given science, technology, engineering and maths roles are predicted to double by 2028, the UK’s economic future lies in closing this skills gap; its crucial schools are equipping pupils with the skills they will need to be successful in the modern, digital workplace.”