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June 9, 2021updated 03 Aug 2022 9:58am

UK government must act now to solve the digital skills crisis

Tech companies have joined forces on a new taskforce to lobby the government for immediate action to resolve the growing skills shortage.

By Cristina Lago

Tech firms and other major UK businesses came together this week to form a taskforce demanding that the government takes immediate action to close the growing digital skills gap and to stress the critical role tech will play in the post-Covid-19 economy.

Led by trade organisation techUK and including companies such as BT, Cisco and Salesforce, the ‘Fast Forward for Digital Jobs’ taskforce launched a report on Tuesday stressing the upsurge in demand for digitally skilled workers and the opportunities that reskilling in these fields could have for those affected by Covid-19 redundancies.

Recent estimates forecast that the UK will need three million jobs requiring digital skills by 2025. However, 52% of the UK workforce still does not possess such skills according to a Lloyds Bank report. A different study shows that although the majority of UK employers believe that reliance on digital skills will increase in the future, skills provision in education demonstrates that training in the area is on a downward trend.

Ian Brown, CEO of UKFast and member of the taskforce, said that the main differentiator between this project and previous initiatives to bridge the digital skills gap is the scale and its level of acceleration: “This just feels more urgent than it probably ever has,” he told Tech Monitor.

I don’t want to get overly dramatic but in some ways you could liken it to the climate crisis.
Ian Brown, UKFast CEO

“It’s not like we have a lot of time or there are a lot of alternatives," he continued. "I don’t want to get overly dramatic but in some ways you could liken it to the climate crisis. If the UK wants to be a tech-enabled economy and to do things differently, which we have a unique opportunity to do now, then at some level there is no choice.”

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What are the taskforce recommendations?

The taskforce report offers the government and the technology industry seven recommendations in three areas, including ways of supporting learners, employers and delivering change at scale.

One of the recommendations asks for the government to help SMEs to invest in digital reskilling through a digital skills tax credit. Brown said that, if introduced, this initiative could have an impact similar to the R&D tax credit, which offers tax relief to companies working on innovative projects in science and technology: “That’s really one for the government to get their heads around and I think it’s just a matter of political will – that’s what I personally think.”

Christelle Heikkila, IT director at Arsenal FC and non-executive director of TechSkills, a techUK partnership that works with employers and educators to incentivise digital talent, said that this initiative is an opportunity to get more girls and women into a sector where they are overwhelmingly underrepresented: “If you exclude half of your population when you're trying to get more skills into the industry, you really, really are missing a trick," she says.

Heikkila told Tech Monitor that there is an “image problem”, particularly among young girls, in terms of making technology attractive to them. She referred to the GCSE curriculum, where 60% of it is coding – something that “is very unappealing to a young 14-year-old girl who was thinking about GCSE options to do”, she said. This is why effective reforms should start at school education level, before it is too late. Aspiring for a 50/50 gender parity list of candidates for tech roles in an organisation becomes impossible if there is not enough female talent available.

“If you have less than 20% of women working in the industry and it's a pyramid, as you get more senior in the organisation, you probably see less and less women available. I think that that's almost virtually an unachievable aspiration,” said Heikkila.

Other recommendations in the report include showcasing the life-changing opportunities of digital skills and jobs and helping learners meet the cost of retraining by extending financial assistance similar to the lifelong loan entitlement and lifetime skills guarantee.

In May, the government announced new laws and reforms to the skills and training provision in the UK, including the introduction of a skills and post-16 education bill to equip Britons with the digital knowledge needed for the jobs that will be vital in the post-pandemic economy. However, the taskforce said that the UK does not yet have the infrastructure and resources to meet this challenge, and asks for the government to work with tech companies to offer new solutions for all people to access digital skills certifications with a proven track record on employability, supporting workers from all backgrounds to succeed in digital jobs.

Although some of the recommendations, if adopted, might take longer to bear fruit than others, Brown said that with the right will and collaboration between government, industry and other relevant stakeholders, “there’s nothing here that couldn’t be done within a year”. For example, Brown said that showcasing opportunities of digital jobs could start having an impact in the short term.

“If we actually come up with something really at scale and creative, it can start having an impact in terms of opening people’s eyes in a number of weeks. You can be putting bus shelters in more deprived areas encouraging people into tech, and not just encouraging them but saying “here’s a tangible first step to do it.”

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