Digital Skills Gap

For thousands of students across the UK, August 2021 was filled with nerves and excitement. Even under normal education and work environments, making career decisions for young people is difficult – where should a 16 – 20 year old invest their time and energy to ensure a long-term career?

Since March 2020, the culture of work has changed and Covid-19 also had a clear effect on those who have received their A level results this year.

Job markets have transformed over the past 18-24 months, with a huge shift towards a digital culture. Those workers who may have never used a laptop before found themselves working from home and dealing with poor WiFi connections, online video meetings, and the need for remote access software such as SharePoint and Google drive.

So there’s no doubting that young people with the ability to navigate these new tools will play a vital role in the future of the workplace.

The importance of essential digital skills

Young people are under no delusions on the importance of digital skills for their future careers. According to research by the Learning and Work Institute, 88% of young people think digital skills will be important for their future careers, and 62% said they have the basic digital skills employers might need, such as the ability to communicate digitally or use common software.

However, many are not sure they have the more complex digital skills a workplace might demand of them. When it comes to more complex digital skills, such as coding or using specialist software, only 18% of young people said they thought they had these more advanced skills employers might need.

WorldSkills UK’s CEO Neil Bentley-Gockmann observed that the study demonstrated a “mismatch between supply and demand” when it comes to the skills employers need versus the skills education is providing.

He said: “The majority of our employer poll believe that their reliance on digital skills will increase in the future, yet analysis of digital skills provision in education shows that the numbers training in digital skills is on a downward trend.”

A two-minute job board search will show that most businesses require employees to have basic digital skills, and the report shows that digital skills are featured in 82% of job vacancies.

But demand for digital skills is moving beyond this basic level. More than a quarter of firms said a majority of employees need both basic digital skills and in-depth specialist knowledge in a more technical area.

On top of that, 60% of employers saying their need for these advanced digital skills is likely to increase in the next five years.

Investing in digital

Digital skills gaps, and a lack of appropriate skills in the tech sector, are not new issues. However, employers are concerned that not enough is being done to close future skills gaps by providing digital skills to young people that will line up with what employers are likely to demand in the future.

Learning and Work Institute found half of young people are interested in a job which requires advanced digital skills, and 70% expect an employer to invest in their skills.
However, only 47% of employers said they deployed on-the-job training to fill skills gaps, while 33% said they fixed their skills gaps by hiring people with the appropriate skills to plug the gap.

This is clearly a problem of disconnection – young people expect to be upskilled in digital by their employers, while for whatever reason, employers look to directly hire people with the required skills rather than upskill their existing inexperienced staff.
The government has developed a number of plans and strategies to increase digital skills in both children and adults in recent years, especially with its claims the UK’s post-Covid future hinges upon technology.

In early 2021, the government outlined plans to make gaining essential digital skills in adulthood easier, and expressed plans to continue developing a more blended model for education to make digital and remote learning more viable, building on what has been learnt during the pandemic.

As a technical and more vocational alternative to A-levels, the government developed T-level qualifications, one of the first of which is in digital, launched in September 2020.

But according to the Learning and Work Institute, at GCSE level there has been a drop in the number of students taking IT-based subjects – while the number of students taking ICT GCSEs has dropped as a result of the subject being phased out, Learning and Work Institute claimed the increase in people taking computer science GCSEs since 2015 has not yet made up the difference – and between 2015 and 2020 there has been a 5% drop in students taking IT-based subjects at A-Level, though there was a slight year-on-year increase between 2019 and 2020.

Learning and Work Institute’s report also claimed the number of hours spent teaching computing subjects in secondary schools dropped by 36% between 2012 and 2017.
The report claims the pandemic has disproportionately affected young people, not only disrupting education but also causing job losses, with three in five jobs lost belong to those between 16 and 24.

But when it comes to technology apprenticeships, the target demographic skews older, with more than 40% of the 18,200 ICT-based apprenticeships started in 2019/20 aimed at people aged 25 or over, meaning for tech-based apprenticeships, which are already only around one in every 20 apprenticeships available, people are likely to be older when they apply as opposed to apprenticeships more generally where the opposite is the case.

At a higher level, people starting undergraduate or postgraduate education in computer science courses has been steadily increasing over the last five years.
Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute, said: “Our research shows that demand for basic digital skills is already nearly universal, and demand for more advanced digital skills will continue to increase. Helping young people develop the digital skills that employers need will be vital both to driving our economic competitiveness, and to ensuring young people can succeed in the labour market of the future.”

The report was commissioned by Workskills UK, a charity which works with employers, education and governments, focussing on apprenticeships and skills for getting young people into work.

Neil Bentley-Gockmann, the charity’s chief executive, said: “Other major global economies are ahead of the UK in valuing high quality digital skills to help drive their competitiveness and productivity, we need to act now to ensure the UK is not left behind.”

Aiming for a job that doesn’t exist (yet!)

Recent research revealed that that 65% of children entering primary school today will take up jobs that don’t yet exist. Add that to the fact that we already inhabit a world in which 82% of advertised roles require digital skills and we need to make sure we are supporting the younger generation build the skills that are needed for the future. Covid-19 has only accelerated this trend towards a virtual sphere of working.

It’s vital that the future of the coming generations are secure in the digital world. Therefore, building on these digital skills is more important than ever, not only for young people, but for the UK as a whole. The UK economy could lose as much as £141.5bn of GDP growth if we don’t narrow the skills gap and ensure that we are supporting the future generation to get ready for a career that will increasingly be online.

According to research from FE News, the way to secure a future for the coming generations is to ensure collaboration between the education and the business sectors.
Currently, the education system does not always align with industries and the rapidly-moving tech sector. It’s hardly surprising, with new technologies and methodologies popping up on the internet every day – how is a structured education system expected to keep up? Similarly, once a new platform or skill appears how does an education provider find someone experienced enough to teach it? It’s hard to have “5 years’ of experience” in a platform that’s only been around for 6 months!

Part of solving this problem will also come from ensuring that we are tackling the gender diversity issue within the tech sector. We’ve talked about this in more detail in our Women In Digital whitepaper.

There is a huge pool of untapped resources, primed for the increasingly digitalised market, if we can break down the misconceptions that these skills and education choices are the preserve of men.

Most importantly, the education system and training providers need to seize the opportunity to encourage more young people to build upon their digital skills. This needs to be a national strategy that brings together industry, education and government to deliver guidance and communication to young people who are at the start of their career journey.

A shift to a more tech-based environmental way of working will both benefit young people’s lives and the nation’s economy. Digital skills are now life skills and we need to equip the younger generation with the skills they need to enhance their futures.

Apprenticeships as a future-proof solution

Eleanor Bradley, CEO of Nominet wrote in FE News that apprenticeships could be the ideal path for young people wanting to learn digital skills.

Bradley said: “We need young people to realise the benefits of undertaking an apprenticeship, but we must also ensure there is a healthy range of apprenticeship options available. More could be done to expand the range of digitally-focused apprenticeships available to people, and continuing to bring tech companies on board will be integral.”

The B2W Group’s Marketing Director Dave Bailey commented: “We’re a firm believer in ensuring that our own training is acutely aligned to the changing needs of the world we live in. By providing a number of pathways and entry points into digital skills we’ve seen an increase in learners and successful learner outcomes. I actually have three full-time members of my team who progressed through our own Level 3 Apprenticeship and are now helping to shape our own marketing and also bench-testing our Level 4 Apprenticeship marketing programme.”

Digital Skills from The B2W Group

At The B2W Group, we offer a range of courses and qualifications designed to launch your Digital Marketing career.

Our Level 3 Digital Marketer combines work and study to help you advance in Digital Marketing and is a great educational choice for any age, with different levels available to suit existing skill sets. Whether you want to begin your journey or upskill in your current role, it can really benefit you and the business you work for.

We spoke with Billy Armitage and Oliver Steele who recently completed Level 3 Digital Marketing Apprenticeships, and are now embarking on Level 4 Apprenticeship courses in order to further their careers.

“Learning digital skills has allowed me to turn my passion for design and content creation into a realistic career path,” said Billy. “With new developments being implemented into the digital world and with more businesses becoming more dependent on these systems, the need for people with desirable digital skills has never been more felt. Choosing an apprenticeship allows you to learn the most up to date skills while gaining valuable on the job experience.”

Oliver Steele has also moved from completion of his Level 3 apprenticeship onto a Level 4 Digital Marketing apprenticeship, saying:

“Being able to gain a range of digital skills has become more and more valuable. The competition for digital roles is still on the rise as people are attempting to future-proof their careers with work they can continue remotely. Using an apprenticeship to take this first step is a solid way of cutting the queues in the job application process while not needing any prior experience as it’s all presented to you as you grow in your role.Digital apprenticeships the perfect opportunity for anyone wanting a career change or to just simply gain some more skills while still earning a monthly wage.”

Digital apprenticeships the perfect opportunity for anyone wanting a career change or to just simply gain some more skills while still earning a monthly wage.”

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