How do you solve a problem like the UK's digital skills crisis?

The skills gap is apparently costing our economy £63bn a year in lost GDP, but rushing to plug it could cause more harm than good.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 21 Jun 2016

Oh dear – apparently we could do better at combating the much panicked about ‘digital skills crisis’. A new report from the Commons Science and Technology Committee has warned more urgent action is needed or we risk further damaging the country’s lagging productivity and competitiveness.

The report suggests more than 12 million adults lack basic digital skills (a broad term, covering everything from coding and writing software to the general ability to use a computer or digital device to access the internet). Some 5.8 million have never used the internet at all, though many of these will be older people.

However, while younger people are often viewed as old hands when it comes to anything digital, they still need training and guidance to get to grips with the fast-moving world of technology. With that in mind, it’s not the best news to hear 22% of IT equipment in schools is ineffective, or that only 35% of computer science teachers have a relevant qualification.

The report claimed these reflected ‘stubborn digital exclusion and systemic problems with digital education and training’, which need to be addressed by the government. Equally though, if many older people are indeed shaky with their online know-how, it doesn't mean we should write them off - we need to be thinking about becoming more inclusive and making these skills more widely attainable.

The bottom line is that the UK apparently needs another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017... or else. But it is worth putting this in perspective a little. The nation's hardly in grave trouble on the digital front. Last year, the UK was said to have the largest internet economy in the world as a percentage of GDP, worth over £100bn a year, according to Google. And EY’s ‘attractiveness survey’ had investors still very much enamoured with the capital; London was named the second most likely city in the world to create the next big tech giant (after San Francisco, naturally).

This isn’t to dismiss the suggestions made by the report. It will be hard to rest on our digital laurels if there's nobody to code them for us, after all. Universities providing coding conversion courses to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds enter the tech sector could be a hugely helpful step at widening opportunities. Similarly, a review of the qualifying requirements for ‘shortage occupation’ IT jobs under Tier 2 visas is much overdue. It could lift a weight off the shoulders of small businesses, providing easier access to critical digital skills from abroad.

But repeatedly sounding the alarm over a ‘digital skills crisis’ puts us at risk of panicking and reacting rashly, rather than focusing on longer-term efforts to improve digital education. For businesses feeling under-equipped, the temptation could be to rush in and hire expertise to plug the gap - often at a premium, without entirely planning out how they'll fit into the company.

Besides, untapped potential often already exists within businesses – just because someone doesn’t have 'digital' in their job title doesn’t mean they may not be capable of adapting or broadening their role. Think of how many people (not to mention founders of successful tech companies) learn to code themselves - employees may be doing so in their own time.

While it's right to want to improve the nation's digital ability, it's incorrect to view this solely as an education problem for the government to throw money at. Businesses too need to approach things differently and think about how digital skills are - and will be - integrated into what they do. It's not so much a crisis that needs solving, but rather looking for a way to future-proof the UK's digital standing. We're not in trouble, but we do need to put in some work.

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