Businesses of every size and in every industry are experiencing a jump in skills shortages, with a recent IOD survey finding that 36% of businesses report skills shortages are having a negative impact on their operations. The accelerated pace of transformation brought on by COVID-19 has caused the already high demand for digital skills to even further outstrip supply. Organisations that were already fighting for digital talent pre-pandemic are now having to compete with those that are shifting products, services and processes online.
The situation is so serious that a recent Open University survey found that more than three-quarters (77%) of organisations in the UK are grappling with a digital skills gap. More than two thirds (69%) put this down to not being able to find and recruit staff with the desired skills, while 62% said they're struggling to upskill their current workforce to close this gap. This is an issue that’s particularly prevalent in the world of IT where technical skills including cyber security, software development and network engineering are found to be significantly lacking.
In short, the digital skills gap has become a digital skills crisis.
Challenges into opportunities
Until recently, much of the focus on closing the UK’s digital skills gap focused on traditional education – encouraging, empowering, and equipping the next generation of workers to develop digital skills from a young age. While this is set to address future gaps, it doesn’t do much to shift the dial today. Employers need to make upskilling opportunities available to existing staff, or open the door to lifelong learning for those wishing to reskill into a digital role.
In a bid to make more immediate and real-world impact, the majority (93%) of UK businesses have taken steps to improve digital skills in-house, via training courses, partnerships and apprenticeships, according to research by the CBI.
The Open University's survey also found that almost half (48%) of business leaders believe upskilling their staff will drive profitability. Some 46% think it will improve productivity and 45% believe it will make their company more competitive. Upskilling was also cited by respondents as a way to avoid expensive new hires by a further 48% of survey participants.
Resource, unfortunately, remains one of the biggest barriers to the success of such initiatives. There are many training options available and all of these need to be balanced against the needs of the business and the personal commitments and job roles of employees. Finding high-quality, accredited, recognised and industry-focused courses – especially courses suitable for all stages of employment – is another hurdle.
For individuals, gaining basic on-the-job skills is one thing, but having a qualification widely recognised by other employers improves their future prospects, as well as their existing ones. This also makes it possible for would-be employers to understand which skills – and to what level – candidates have.
Introducing Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs)
In a move to help solve skills challenges, the UK Government recently introduced Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs). HTQs are qualifications, such as Foundation Degrees or Diplomas of Higher Education, that have been approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. Available in England, they are designed to meet the occupational standards for their relevant sectors and each programme has been developed in collaboration with employers and businesses. This means that students – from school leavers to adults – get the specific training, knowledge and skills that employers actually want and need.
Compared to more informal or bite-sized in-house training options and online courses, HTQs provide a high-quality alternative, based on the same employer-developed occupational standards as apprenticeships without the need to find employment as an apprentice. Depending on the course and provider, HTQs can be studied full or part-time, with funding from the UK Government available for people looking to retrain and upskill around other commitments.
“As organisations continue to rely more and more on digital capability, [our survey] shows that it can be challenging to recruit staff into digital roles and keep existing employees up to date with relevant digital skills,” said Jacky Hinton, Director of Apprenticeships and HTQs at The Open University.
“The Open University is proud to be one of the first institutions to offer HTQs in Network Engineering and Software Development, which as the results show, are some of the roles that employers lack and are finding it challenging to recruit for.”
The Network Engineering and Software Development courses have been designed around professional practice in the industry. What’s more, they both build a foundation of computing, mathematical knowledge and skills, before progressing to the fundamental technologies and techniques relevant to the roles in question.
Gaining the advantage
HTQs give their staff the specific knowledge and digital skills to drive their business forward. They help produce highly motivated, trained employees and improve staff retention, all while enabling the business to address the digital transformation of products, services and processes. Benefits that could make or break businesses of the future.
The demand for digital skills is showing no signs of stopping, and neither are the mass resignations being seen worldwide. Businesses that are proactive in their approach to solving the skills crisis will make themselves much more attractive to both current and prospective employees. This, ultimately, gives them a competitive edge among other benefits.
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