Government puts digital skills at the centre of UK's future

The UK government will focus on developing people's digital skills in a bid to ensure the UK tech sector remains innovative following Brexit.

The Digital Strategy, unveiled today, relies in part on tech giants like Google and private firms like BT to boost tech skills, and outlines investment in key areas to boost the UK's technology industry.

A Digital Skills Partnership with the private sector promises to offer four million free skills training opportunities. Lloyds Banking Group will train 2.5 million people, charities and SMBs by 2020 under the plan, while Google will put on a Summer of Skills programme focusing on seaside towns.

Barclays will aim to help one million people with digital and cyber skills during 2017, and teach basic coding to 45,000 children. Meanwhile, BT will grow its Barefoot Computing Project to teach another 500,000 children "early computational thinking skills" by summer 2018.

Another 100,000 people could be helped by a partnership between outsourcer Accenture and online course provider FutureLearn, which aim to develop a national digital skills programme.

The focus on closing the UK's skills gap was welcomed by industry observers, including technology trade body techUK, which said Britain faces a "a triple hit on digital skills".

"The UK's domestic digital skills pipeline still isn't strong enough to meet the growing demand for digital skill, and skilled workers from both the EU and non-EEA countries face tighter restrictions in the near future," said techUK deputy CEO Antony Walker.

Walker warned that the UK's digital economy "will suffer" without access to global talent, as the future status of EU citizens resident in Britain remains uncertain and Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled out keeping the UK in the EU single market.

But Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Karen Bradley, insisted that the digital strategy will protect and strengthen the UK's digital sectors.

"[The strategy] sets a path to make Britain the best place to start and grow a digital business, trial a new technology, or undertake advanced research as part of the Government's plan to build a modern, dynamic and global trading nation," she added.

"There should be no digital divide - every individual and every business should have the skills and confidence to make the most of digital technology and have easy access to high-quality internet wherever they live, work, travel or learn."

Gerard Grech, chief executive of the government's startup promotional body, Tech City UK, added: "In the UK tech sector jobs are being created at twice the rate of the wider economy, and today's Digital Strategy provides an ambitious road map for the industry to continue growing at this rate and building a new economy fit for the future."

The government will also invest 17.3 million via the Engineering and Physical Scuences Research Council, to support UK universities developing robotics and AI technology.

TechMarketView analyst John O'Brien said: "Government is doing the right thing providing funding for these advanced technologies, while also getting industry buy-in to educate and support the next generation. However, we have yet to see any similar emphasis on up-skilling and retraining the existing generation who are already being displaced by these advances."

The Science and Technology Committee last year warned that the government must reskill workers affected by AI automation.