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Millions of UK workers lack digital workplace skills, says FutureDotNow

As the UK’s digital skills crisis looms larger, business coalition FutureDotNow says businesses must provide the essential workplace skills that people need

Updating privacy settings, updating security systems and accessing digital payslips are among the essential workplace digital skills that millions in the UK don’t have, according to FutureDotNow.

In partnership with PwC and Lloyds Banking Group, the FutureDotNow report Unpacking the hidden middle looked into data from several sources, as well as the 17 digital tasks deemed essential for work in Lloyds Bank’s Essential digital skills report 2021 to determine the level of the UK’s digital skills gap.

The report – which focused on 30.3 million people in the UK’s working population who have at least a foundational level of digital skill – found that despite 5.6 million of these workers having developed their digital skills during pandemic lockdowns, about 11.8 million are unable to complete at least one of Lloyds’ Essential Digital Skills for Work.

Liz Williams, CEO of FutureDotNow, said: “The gap in basic digital capability in the UK workforce is real and huge. FutureDotNow has revealed, in this new report, that nearly two-thirds of workers would benefit from growing their basic digital skills and they are people at every level, from the c-suite to the shop floor.

“But insight is just the first step to action, and businesses do need to act. People need opportunities, and in some cases incentives, to build the core digital skills that will open new opportunities for individuals and employers alike.”

Research by the Industrial Strategy Council suggested that by 2030, the UK’s biggest skills gap will be “basic digital capability”. Currently, only 32% of the UK’s workforce were able to complete all 17 Essential Digital Skills for Work tasks laid out in Lloyds’ annual digital skills index.

Digital skills gaps exist throughout the UK, not just at a more technical level that prevents organisations from finding skilled workers, but at a basic level that prevents people from fully participating in modern activities.

The FutureDotNow report said 32% of UK workers with at least a foundational level of digital skills can’t use digital systems, such as expenses or budgets systems, to manage digital records or financial accounts.

The same percentage of people cannot alter their privacy settings on social media accounts, and a quarter said they can’t set up and manage accounts on professional networks such as LinkedIn.

Using digital tools posed an issue for many, with 23% unable to use software such as spreadsheets to interpret data, 22% unable to access digital payslips or salary information through a password-protected account, 18% unable to use collaboration tools, and 20% without the ability to access and sync data across devices.

When it comes to cyber security, 30% said they were not able to update their device’s security systems and 19% said they couldn’t use security software to assess risks with certain online activities.

Looking at the mixture of different digital tasks that working adults were able to perform in the UK, FutureDotNow was able to identify four groups of behaviours that describe the UK working population’s relationship with digital skills.

About 3.5 million people, or 12%, are likely to be able to access salary information digitally, are careful when sharing information online and can use the internet for problem-solving, but are unlikely to be able to complete tasks such as updating computer systems, using professional networks and sharing information across devices. This group of people are more likely to be female than male, are aged around 45 or over, and are less likely to be mid-to-high earners.

In this “digitally lacking” group, 24% of people are unable to perform 25 or more of the 29 life tasks the Lloyds digital skills index deems essential and 60% are not able to do 14 or more of the 17 essential work tasks.

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About 17% of working age people in the UK with at least a basic level of digital skills – around 5.2 million – fall into the category of “digitally safe”, being able to identify and avoid suspicious activity when using technology, as well as keeping data safe and using passwords online, but are less likely to be confident building an online professional network, using digital systems or using productivity tools.

Despite being safe online, this group of people show a lack of desire to learn new digital skills, with 18% of them lacking the ability to perform a majority of life tasks, and almost half unable to carry out 14 or more of the digital work tasks.

Many people fall into the “digitally vulnerable” category – about 4 million people – who are less likely to be able to complete a majority of the digital tasks needed for everyday life or for work.

The “digitally vulnerable” 13%, while most likely to be able to use communication tools to digitally collaborate as well as build their online professional persona, are lacking in other digital skills, such as changing privacy settings or updating computer systems.

The final 58%, accounting for about 17 million people, are fairly digitally literate – usually higher earners who are based in London and under the age of 45.

Only 15% of these people are not able to perform 14 or more of the work tasks, and 7% are unable to do 25 or more of the life tasks.

Of the more digitally inept profiles, many are likely to work in industries such as government, education, medicine, the public services sector, or are service workers.

In some cases, internal training has been seen as a way to fill technology skills gaps, upskilling current employees with the knowledge they need for roles, rather than competing with other companies in the smaller pool of existing tech talent.

Almost 60% of adults said the easiest way for them to learn digital skills would be through work, but only 23% are receiving any training through their workplace.

FutureDotNow had many suggestions for tackling this digital divide in the workplace, but training people internally with the appropriate skills was the main solution offered, with the report claiming that increasing digital skills could contribute billions of pounds to the economy over the next 10 years.

The report cited other benefits of ensuring workers have digital skills, including an increase in productivity, and better cyber security. FutureDotNow found a lack of digital skills can make it difficult for companies to adopt new technology, and 70% of digital transformation fails because of a lack of user adoption.

It also found that 39% of businesses have reported a cyber attack in the last year, and 83% have experienced a phishing attack. If employees are not equipped with the digital skills they need to keep cyber-savvy, this could put employers at risk of attacks.

Pointing out that businesses have a role to play in closing the UK’s skills gaps, the report cited identifying and resolving digital skills gaps as a way to begin closing the digital capability divide.

FutureDotNow said surveying the workforce to see where they are lacking in digital skills, being mindful of differing needs when designing education, and focusing on cyber skills first are all important when trying to address company skills gaps.

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