The UK has a proud history as a technology pioneer: from the steam engine to the worldwide web, British inventors have been at the forefront of technologies that have transformed lives across the world. But today our status as one of the world’s leading science and technology hubs is under threat.
Digital skills shortages, which put the UK at a competitive disadvantage, have been a long-standing concern of business leaders. But now that concern is shared by their employees. New research commissioned by Salesforce has found a major contradiction at the heart of the British digital economy.
UK workers rank digital skills as the most important skill for the current and future workplace. But more than a quarter of UK workers still do not feel confident in any digital capabilities. There is an economic cost to this, with research last month warning that the UK’s digitally unskilled population is costing its economy £12.8bn.
In the autumn statement, the Chancellor rightly identified digital technology as one of the UK’s five growth industries and pledged to make the UK “the world’s next Silicon Valley”. Standing in the way, is the skills gap.
This is more than a financial issue. It also impacts the prospects of our workforce. According to our survey, current UK workers blame their poor digital confidence on a lack of training, with a third saying their job does not provide digital upskilling opportunities. Access to training and continued learning were rated as more important than pay bonuses and wellbeing benefits at work. Put simply, UK workers want – and need – to upskill.
Yet, training is available. Industry already offers a plethora of online opportunities, from basic digital skills to courses on technological developments. For example, our online digital learning platform Trailhead is accessible to all for free. But not enough people know about these types of resources or have the confidence to take them up.
The digitally unskilled need help understanding that technology is an accessible gateway into so many roles, not just coding and app design. And tech savvy individuals need retraining opportunities in high-demand areas like AI and Blockchain.
That this training exists, but isn’t used is a clear missed opportunity. We should, as a country, establish a national online digital skills platform to bring together programmes from industry, training providers and educational institutions, and highlight where to access training. The digital equivalent of the Open University to promote the accessibility and value of digital skills.
For me, equally worrying is that today’s young people do not recognise the importance of digital skills. We found that schoolchildren ranked digital skills as only the seventh most important aspect of the 2030 workplace. Sadly, computer science was the fifth dream job for boys and not even in the top 10 for girls. A future generation that lacks awareness of digital capabilities means our national skills crisis will only grow.
Ultimately, businesses have a responsibility to train the nation. But the government needs to work with businesses and academic institutions.
Failure to act will compromise Britain’s status as a destination for investment and innovation and limit our economic prospects. It will also make it harder to navigate the unprecedented economic headwinds we are currently facing – digital transformation, driven by a digitally-capable workforce, is crucial to building future business resilience and productivity.