Growing up, if I wanted to speak to someone, I would meet them face to face; if I needed to learn something, I would look it up in a book; and when I needed to get somewhere new, I would unfold a map.
Back then, I would never have guessed that, one day, all this and more could be done simply through a mobile phone. As the digital era strides forward, there’s no denying it is transforming the way we live and work. But I find myself asking whether we can confidently say as individuals and as a society that we are making the most of the opportunities it holds.
The EU referendum result sent a clear message that parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing fully in the promise of prosperity. And at a time when we urgently need to secure our position on the world stage, we must remember that increasingly future prosperity will depend on how well equipped we are to meet the pace of technological change. With the UK digital technology industry now creating jobs almost three times faster than the rest of the economy, we must ensure that the many, and not just the few, have the skills to access these types of opportunities.
Today, with the support of a wide range of contributors from the business, technology and scale-up sectors, we have launched The Barclays Digital Development Index, which seeks to understand how ready the UK workforce is for the digital economy, compared with its international rivals.
The good news is that the UK is punching above its weight in terms of policies to encourage digital upskilling. However, when it comes to individuals’ assessment of their own skills, the UK trails major economic rivals India, China and the US, coming in sixth place overall. So what can the UK do to ensure that the good work being done by policy-makers translates into digital empowerment for people at all levels of society?
UK efforts to date have focused largely on the extremes – either on encouraging advancement at the fast-growth and fintech end of the spectrum or on addressing digital exclusion – with limited emphasis on those who have basic digital literacy but may be just “getting by” online. The government has taken concrete steps to embed digital training in schools. It must also, though, help to ensure that the “forgotten middle” receive training in digital skills to avoid being left behind by rapid technological change.
An important part of this is workplace training – only 38 per cent of UK workers interviewed for our study said that their employer offers training in digital skills; this figure is considerably higher in China, the US (48 per cent in both) and India (67 per cent).
People need to be inspired to keep learning, and it must be easy for people to learn for themselves. There must also be flexibility and a range of learning channels.
Ensuring the UK has the digital skills and expertise to compete globally across all sectors and industries needs to be a collaborative effort. Ultimately businesses can only thrive if our society thrives too. Now is the time to leave no one behind and take charge of our digital future.