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It was a welcome development when the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Digital Skills launched a call for evidence from employers and other interested parties on digital skills for the future of work to help inform the government’s upcoming Digital Strategy.
I hope that many organisations responded to the APPG by the deadline of 4 June 2021. It is a critically important topic for the future health of the UK economy and the employability of swathes of the workforce in the digital age.
First of all, we need to ensure that we learn the lessons of the pandemic about how we work, so that employers have the infrastructure and models in place to really support their people. There is no doubt that the experience of working through Covid-19 has changed the future. It hugely accentuated the need for connectivity, remote collaboration tools and digital working – and, overall, it has worked remarkably well.
We need to keep the best of this and stay committed to a hybrid model into the future, with a flexible balance of home/remote working and office time.
However, there are some challenges – particularly around mental wellbeing. Remote working doesn’t suit everyone. Our research revealed a 75% rise through the pandemic in technology professionals concerned about their mental health.
Organisations will need to keep a focus on ensuring they have “no stigma” cultures where wellbeing issues can be discussed openly, with other support measures such as mentoring networks, counselling and online resources.
These are the enabling conditions through which the UK can create an empowered, flexible, digital workforce. But to generate and nurture the talent needed to actually form it, we believe there are three key areas for the government to look at.
Digital skills through training and apprenticeships
Firstly, training, paid internships and apprenticeships can be hugely effective. We have experienced this ourselves in our own businesses, such as our IT solutions business Crimson, which runs an apprenticeship scheme that brings a diverse set of people from all backgrounds into the industry, who perform at an extremely high level.
We would like the government’s strategy to place a strong emphasis on such schemes and other upskilling/reskilling initiatives to bring people into technology-related roles. There have been some encouraging recent developments in this area, such as the government’s Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the Queen’s Speech which includes the ability to retrain later in life through the Lifetime Skills Guarantee as part of the £2.5bn National Skills Fund (NSF).
The NSF is also funding a wave of “digital bootcamps” that will create a new injection of digitally enabled talent into the workforce. To make the qualification attractive to employers, these bootcamps should include active work on live assignments, not just theoretical learning.
Turning the tide on gender in tech
Secondly, we need to see more women attracted to technology. Only about 15% of people in the sector are female and this has been at around the same disappointingly low level for many years, despite efforts to increase it. This is a huge miss for the sector.
The exact reasons why women and girls are not attracted to tech careers are hard to pin down. Most likely, there is a need to “change the narrative”. Part of the deterrent may come down to a perceived “macho” long-hours culture. This is changing through the flexible and remote working the pandemic has kick-started, giving people more control over how and where they work.
The government needs to help reinforce this message for technology careers and communicate it into schools and colleges, where young girls form early perceptions. Collectively, we also need to present technology careers as about enabling outcomes and problem-solving, rather than a technical or mechanical discipline, because this may be another deterrent to young women.
‘Levelling up’ the front and back office
Thirdly, our research suggests that although technology jobs are generally on the increase around the UK, there is some unevenness in that there is a weighting towards front-office roles in London and the South, and back-office roles in the North, even if there are some creative hotspots such as Manchester.
The danger is that as automation and artificial intelligence remove the need for some human roles, back-office tasks could be the most affected, disproportionately hitting the North and damaging the government’s levelling-up agenda. We encourage the government to target some of its digital skills investment specifically at the North to stimulate front-office training and capabilities.
Attracting global tech talent
Another area we would highlight as requiring careful balance is immigration policy. About 27% of technology professionals in the UK were born overseas – a figure that rises to 46% in London. They are a vital talent engine for the sector.
In the wake of Brexit, it is essential that we continue to send the message – backed up by policy – that the UK is open for business and an attractive place for international talent to live, work and settle. Without this, our already significant talent shortages could be fatally exacerbated.
We recommend that the government should consider whether a portion of the £2.5bn NSF fund – if unused and available after a certain period – could be allocated to overseas workers who commit to coming to train and work in the UK, with suitable clawback arrangements in place as insurance.
I look forward to the results of the APPG’s consultation – and hope the feedback received helps further propel us towards a smart, enabled and productive digital future.