Thursday 24 July 2014 11:00 am

Britain’s digital skills crisis is jeopardising our competitiveness

The digital skills agenda has become a hot topic in Britain. But if we thought adding computer science to the national curriculum would be a silver bullet solution to the UK’s chronic digital skills shortages, we were wrong. A report out this week from the Digital Skills Taskforce confirms just how much still needs to be done if we are to tackle the skills challenges threatening UK growth and competitiveness.

We’re in danger of missing the mark if the digital skills agenda remains exclusively focused on up-skilling young people. Young people are brilliant. They are brave, ambitious, and possess native digital talent that we need to nurture. But they lack the support network to allow them to put their digital expertise to practical use – for their own benefit and that of the UK. And this is where UK companies can get involved.

Let’s not delude ourselves; this is a matter of national competitiveness. Research commissioned by O2 found that we could add an additional £11bn to the economy each year if we improved the quality and quantity of the digital skills supply in the UK and stimulated faster and deeper adoption of digital technologies by businesses. But while the opportunity is clear, a worrying skills shortage is putting the brakes on this route to sustained digital growth. The UK needs 745,000 additional digitally-skilled workers by 2017 to meet current demand. So what’s the solution?

While there is much else to be done, a fifth of these jobs can be filled by young people aged 25 or under. We desperately need to see more businesses plugging the gap by giving young digital natives the palpable opportunity to capitalise on their skills and knowledge. We have an incredible wealth of home-grown talent in the UK – a recent Telefónica study showed that the UK’s young people felt themselves to be more tech savvy than their global counterparts. For our part, over a third of the people who work at O2 are under the age of 30, so I know first-hand the valuable contribution young people can make to a business.

By the same token, and as the Digital Skills Taskforce report highlighted, we all have a duty to push those young people towards the vast range of opportunities available in the digital economy. Digital doesn’t just mean jobs as programmers or coders, it also opens up careers in film, fashion and music.

Yet too many young people are surrounded by those with analogue ambitions. As this week’s report suggests, business, government and schools need to better signpost digital career opportunities and inspire a new generation into technology. We have seen the benefit since opening the Think Big Hub, a new workspace in the heart of London, which will help 3,000 young people in 2014 alone to develop digital skills and gain access to employability training.

But everyone has a role to play. Whether you run a business or are a parent, it’s in all of our interests to force this agenda at the next parents’ evening, governors’ meeting or at the board table, to help build a stronger support network for young people that will allow them, and ultimately the UK, to prosper.

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