Is the UK government's plan for digital upskilling on track?

A child working on a robotics project sitting at a desk with a tablet and two robots writing on a notepad
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

In June 2019, the government commissioned a report through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to "help inform the development of evidence-based digital skills policy". It positioned this alongside another piece of research from a year earlier, with Margot James, then minister for Digital and the Creative Industries, saying: "I want the UK to have a world leading digital economy which supports business needs and promotes technological innovation."

18 months on, and with the Coronavirus pandemic putting a strain on every area of public policy and investment, can this country still meet that aim? Or will its competitiveness and knowledge base lag behind nations that are doing more to address the growing skills gap worldwide?

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, believes the Government is taking steps in the right direction but warns: "We should not underestimate the scale of the task. The UK has a prevailing digital skills deficit," adding, "in the short-term, the homegrown skills pool will not expand at the pace required".

Over the past nine months, COVID-19 has brought about an unexpected acceleration in digital transformation across all areas, from retail to manufacturing, forcing many into unemployment and spurring much talk from politicians about "levelling up".

The government has attempted to address this with the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, offering adults without A-levels a free, fully-funded college course. This comes alongside its free online Skills Toolkit, where it has worked with partners such as the Good Things Foundation and FutureLearn to help people train in digital and numeracy skills. It has also committed £8 million for digital skills boot camps in four new locations after two pilot schemes in Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.

UK skills shortages remain extremely high

Questions remain as to whether this national plan is enough to address the issue, however, given that data from the 2020 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey showed prior to COVID-19 skills shortages this year remained close to an all-time high.

Cyber security was the most scarce according to 35% of respondents, followed by organisational change management, enterprise architecture, technical architecture, and advanced analytics.

Closing these gaps could prove even tougher in the longer-term; education charity Engineering Development Trust (EDT) found from Ofqual data that there has been a 40% drop in British students studying for an IT qualification in the past five years, falling from 144,635 in 2015 to 87,335 in 2020.

Commenting on the findings, Julie Feest, CEO of EDT, said: "Simply put, every student that chooses a different subject instead of IT represents a missed opportunity to develop the skills that will be essential to the UK's success as a digital powerhouse. The new Computing GCSE highlights this; while brilliant for young people who may have an interest in more technical programming and coding, it does not provide a grounding knowledge of the digital world.

"Students receive their qualification without being taught about essential topics like cybersecurity, digital ethics, fake news or social media – all of which are becoming more prevalent in society."

FutureLearn's Justin Cooke believes collaboration between edtech, academia and industry – with support from government – now needs pushing up the agenda, telling IT Pro: "This will take considerable investment but in return we will see significant results in terms of widening access to digital upskilling opportunities, and positioning the UK as global pioneers in technological innovation."

Investing in underrepresented talent is key

According to Shaw, there should be a three-pronged approach. First, an effort should be made to bring diverse and currently underrepresented talent into the tech sector and provide them with the education and training that he says has "been inaccessible for many communities for far too long". Secondly he says the private sector must do more to fund programmes and provide industry expertise, adding the UK needs a fair immigration system to welcome overseas talent for knowledge transfer and to populate skills throughout the digital economy.

Finally, the government may also need to do better at winning hearts as well as growing minds. Another educational charity, The Smallpeice Trust, found nearly 40% of parents believed their child will not consider pursuing a career in engineering, with many seeing it as "too academic" for their offspring.

Pointing to the fact engineering in the UK currently has a deficit of two million people, CEO Dr Kevin P. Stenson, adds: "It is clear that the industry still has a long way to go in terms of widening accessibility for people from all backgrounds – irrespective of gender or academic ability. No child should feel they are not smart or able enough to pursue a career in engineering."

Some hope can be found in CWJobs' Turning to Tech report, which found 55% of non-tech workers contemplating a career change have considered or begun the process of moving into a tech or IT based role since the pandemic. A fifth of all workers questioned had undertaken online tech training courses in recent months to enhance their employability, showing the demand is out there for schemes like those created by the government.

However, data from upskilling platform Degreed's report State of Skills 2021 shows that three quarters of workers in eight global markets, including the UK, three predicted their current skills would die out in the next three to five years – but nearly half of businesses (46%) had reduced upskilling and reskilling opportunities.

This is perhaps why Jack Hylands, co-founder of FourthRev, suggests even greater wholesale change is needed at a national level, saying: "Government needs to encourage the establishment of career-focused, shorter credentials in high growth digital areas, which can be recognised towards formal qualifications."

Highlighting how he'd like to see greater funding for study outside of traditional degree programmes, including further tax incentives for companies to invest in staff professional development, he adds: "More broadly, the government needs to foster a culture of lifelong learning that underpins a workforce able to rapidly respond to an increasingly dynamic digital economy."

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.