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Mind The UK’s Digital Skills Gap

Digital transformation has created an unprecedented demand for technical skills. Why then is there still a growing digital skills gap?

Increasingly, ROQ is hearing from its customers and industry colleagues, concerns about how real the digital skills gap challenges are.  This supports a stream of news reports that the UK’s failure to develop a workforce with the digital skills to exploit a continuing growth in exciting opportunities (within the technology sector and beyond), is heading towards a crisis. Based on ROQ’s experiences, those of its clients and industry reports, we’ve identified where some of the problems are and have some insights as to where the answers might lie. 

Any successful business leader or entrepreneur knows that companies that don’t adapt to evolving technological advances risk withering on the vine. In fact, the recent pandemic highlighted how essential it is to adopt new technology to survive, either to deal with the challenges of a reduced workforce, increase efficiency demands, facilitate remote working and business continuity or to improve customer experiences. 

Even before the pandemic, it was widely recognised that a digital skills shortage was developing, so it’s not exactly breaking news. What is new, however, is how acute this shortage has become within a short timeframe. By 2025, it’s anticipated that there will be three million new technology job vacancies in the UK, worldwide around 149 million.  It is, therefore, unsurprising that 67% of leaders anticipate a digital skills gap will hold them back from recovery and growth in the current economic climate.  

Demands for certain technological skills are soaring particularly those related to automation, methodology and agile software development. ROQ has seen a significant increase in software testing opportunities, where clients are finding it difficult to access high-quality skills and expertise. 

Although almost every operating sector is being challenged, demands appear greater within Finance and Insurance, Legal, Education, Healthcare, Manufacturing and Technology, alongside Administration and Support Services who are experiencing critical gaps are affecting every level of resourcing.  

ROQ has taken a closer look at some of the challenges that could address the UK skills gap.  

When I grow up, I want to be a… 

Are the youth our future?  If they are, we should be concerned about the decline of interest in Science, Technology, English and Maths (STEM) subjects. The Learning and Work Institute says that the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE level has dropped 40% since 2015. Some believe that curriculum changes away from the old ICT courses to Computer Science is in part responsible for this negative impact on uptake. What’s more, we also don’t yet know the effect of the pandemic on learning and access to technology for those who took exams in 2021.  

Attracting more pupils into studying computer science is not the only issue. There is also a question mark over the quality of education they are receiving, with just 27% of UK leaders believing the education system offers adequate digital training for pupils. 

HR Inbox: You’ve got male 

What we can conclude from study choices being made is that IT (and indeed other STEM subjects) seems to still be perceived as primarily a male domain. In 2020, the number of girls choosing to study computer science GCSE was just over 21.4% of total entrants. With the number of girls studying design and technology for GCSE falling from 29,741 in 2019 to 28,763 in 2021, it seems some proactive action is required to reverse this trend. As you would expect, this is reflected further up the educational ladder in that only 19% of those studying a computer science degree are women. 

Despite efforts to encourage girls and women to technology, the low numbers of women studying computer science in education are reflected in job roles too. The percentage of women employed in technology has barely moved from 15.7% in 2009 to approximately 17% today.  The picture is even worse when you look at the differential within the IT ‘professionals’ workforce, with only 6% being female.  

More recently, a white paper published by STEM women stated 60% of female STEM students have had their future career prospects affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. These figures corroborate that there are limitations imposed by gender stereotypes within society, making it clear that we need to do something to break barriers to achieve gender equality within science, mathematics, and related disciplines. Businesses need to realise that a culture of equality not only helps attract and retain women in the UK’s IT sector but that there is the potential for an 11-fold increase in creative innovation (compared to non-diverse organisations).  

Sadly, despite the prescience of a gender diversity problem, organisations and society at large have not been able to foster a culture that successfully focuses on recruiting the best talent with the right values. Doing so will go some way to help fill the technology skills gap by using more of the UK’s available workforce.  

Get with the programmer  

We can’t ignore the role that the pace of technology plays in the digital skills gap dilemma. We are bombarded with a plethora of new technological developments on a regular basis in a manner that isn’t allowing us enough time or resources to equip ourselves with the necessary digital skills. Rapid digitisation within the workplace also leaves some with concerns over obsolescence of the curriculum, with course content becoming outdated by the time students enter the work market.  

Gaining fresh new knowledge and keeping up with Continual Professional Development can be costly in terms of both finance and time.  IT professionals need to carve out precious resources to keep relevant.  Returning to our concerns about educating future IT talent, it could be said that this challenge is bedded in early, leaving students entering the workplace not fully equipped to deal with the task at hand. In the US it was discovered that organisations with poor onboarding processes are twice as likely to experience employee turnover. 

Although a majority – 70% – of young people surveyed said they expect their employers to invest in their digital skills, just 47% of workforces said they were offered on-the-job training. While the number of students studying digital-related apprenticeships grew by 4.9% between the 2017/2018 and 2020/2021 academic years, it still only made up around 5% of apprenticeships.

Whether fresh out of college or looking to retrain or upskill, if there aren’t enough apprenticeship vacancies available, course costs for many potential candidates going back into education can be prohibitive at around £10,000 on average per course.  

With a question mark over who bears the burden of cost and time over educating and training the workforce to be digitally proficient, the answer, it seems, is to revert to a hybrid solution. Last year Microsoft launched a five-year Get On 2021 campaign with pre-employability programmes for students across the UK, expanding apprenticeships through tax transfer, social impact partnerships, career switcher programmes, AI and AI business schools and Talent Accelerator academies. Existing partnerships with University Academy 92 (UA92), UK colleges and universities, the Institute of Digital Technology, DWP, and the DFE’s Skills Toolkit will also support those looking to participate.  

The digital skills gap is growing largely because of the continued assumption that future on-the-job training will provide the necessary digital skills in the workplace. As a result, organisations are finding themselves caught between an educational sector failing to attract and nurture the IT skills required and increasingly prohibitive training costs, coupled with a lack of in-house expertise within industry.  

Locking in your talent 

A relatively unrecognised cost of upskilling your workforce is the additional cost of employee retention. Forty per cent of UK digital leaders admit they can’t keep key employees for as long as they would like. Often these retrained employees are lured away by the offer of more money.

Turnover of staff, however, can be more costly. To help prevent this, companies would do better to invest in continuous training and their staff’s wellbeing. An example of the latter is ROQ’s Wellbeing Programme. Not only does this provide an incentive for the employee to remain loyal to the organisation, but it also ensures the workforce achieves and retains an up-to-date skillset to deal effectively with the fast pace of technological change. It seems only those organisations that encourage, recognise and reward both students and staff to adopt new digital skills on a continual basis will be those who thrive. It has been proven in the US, for example, that retention rates rise 30-50% for companies with strong learning cultures. It is also interesting to note that 86% of millennials would be kept from leaving their current position if their employer offered training and development.

Closing the digital skills gap: Every little helps 

ROQ itself is not immune to the increasing UK skills gap shortage. As a strategic initiative, the company has risen to the challenge by taking several key measures over the last few years. 

It has adopted a remote working first strategy. This has allowed it to continue to recruit candidates possessing the necessary digital skills across a greater geographical reach. The company has also made a significant investment in its Academy (ROQ Test Engineering Academy), aimed at graduates, tech returners and ex-forces. This includes an accredited training programme designed to deliver the next generation of quality test engineering consultants. It has built relationships with Universities, Colleges and Schools to drive change in the extra-curriculum activity – through lecturing, advising and supporting – that will result in employable talent for the technology industry.  

Wake up and smell the shortage 

UK Businesses need to be mindful that the skills shortages are more than a set of statistics. Our country depends on solving these issues as they directly impact the wellbeing of our people, the economy, and the shape of our future workforce. What remains to be seen is whether the technology sector, in its entirety, can take the initiative and accelerate a higher standard and continuity of learning. Whether this is achieved through links to the educational establishment, by plugging the gender gap, creating apprenticeships, or by providing continued learning programmes.  

 

Creating, discovering and nurturing the right skills is a skill. To find out how we do it at ROQ, and to discuss the issues raised in this article, sign up here for our webinar Mind the UK’s Digital Skills Gapat 11am on 30 June 2022. 

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