Tuesday 18 August 2020 7:01 am

The UK must close its digital skills gap — or face an unemployment crisis

Russ Shaw is founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates.

With the economy plunging a catastrophic 20 per cent between April and June, the magnitude of challenges facing UK industries is becoming clearer. A wave of unemployment is likely, and when the furlough scheme officially ends there is no knowing how many people employers will let go. 

Even with additional taxpayer bailouts, there are large segments of the British economy that will not survive — prompting the questions: where is future growth going to come from to bring people back to work?  

Tech has been punching above its weight for years — outstripping much of the economy on growth and job creation before the pandemic. During the lockdown it kept the country going, and now will have a leading role to play in fuelling our national recovery. Consequently, digital skills will become a core component of our way out of the mess — this economy will demand very different talents to the economy that closed back in March.  

Read more:The UK has £10bn skills gap, so investors must back the ‘edtech’ boom

It is estimated that the existing digital skills gap sees the UK lose out on £63bn in GDP every year. As a result of Covid-19, traditional industries are digitalising, new sectors emerging, and our ways of working rapidly changing — that figure is only going to dramatically rise without decisive action.  

There are three core parts of our digital skills strategy that must be prioritised in the wake of this crisis. First, education will need realigning with industry. For stable growth, people must be armed with the skills that employers need. For those leaving further or higher education courses, there is often little to no access to digital skills training. Put bluntly, those graduating from our world-leading universities often do not have basic digital capabilities. Compulsory digital training during the later stages of education would help give Britain’s graduates a fighting chance in a world of work more centred on technology. 

The hurdles facing those in work are only higher. The UK’s approach to lifelong learning has been inadequate — both publicly and privately — with ineffective or insufficient opportunities to develop new skillsets made available by employers or the state. Covid-19 means that lifelong learning cannot be ignored. There is a big role for the private sector to play in funding the reskilling and upskilling of workers with strong coordination from the public sector. There are many organisations that know how to conduct digital skills training — to enhance efforts we should build on the expertise and knowledge within these businesses and the great many education technology organisations that call the UK home. 

Finally, the UK will need to move people from struggling industries into growing sectors. Retail and transport are two areas of the economy where the future looks bleak. Our approach to digital skills will need to be targeted both regionally and at specific sectors to retrain those that the pandemic risks leaving behind in an economy hyper-accelerating its digital capabilities. These three proposals offer practical measures for both the private and public sectors to work together on — to practically implement solutions to our coming unemployment crisis. 

Main image credit: Getty

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