Opinion: UK’s digital skills gap needs different kind of bridge

The standard of digital skills in the UK has attracted headlines this week with terms like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘disaster’ . One in three employers surveyed in new research say staff lack the advanced digital skills they need, and one in four say they lack even basic skills. What can be done to improve the policy approach? 

Findings from the Learning & Work Institute (LWI)‘s report are familiar from other policy reviews: demand for digital skills is rising fast, yet participation in IT courses in schools and colleges continues to decline and employer investment in training is too low. The result is a weak foundation for productivity, innovation and growth.

The familiar solution then follows: more funding is needed for more courses and more investment and participation is needed from employers. 

But if the skills debate is to progress it must move beyond this circular argument. Take a look at the wider trends and you can see that the market for skilled labour is already adjusting – quite independently of education policy.  

At its annual Ignite conference earlier this month, Microsoft highlighted that the US is short of over 1 million software developers. Scarcity drives up salaries, but it also drives the market to innovate around the pinch-points.  The low-code movement is attracting growing interest and Microsoft is just one of many advocates. By encouraging non-developers to use drag-and-drop tools, employees can build their own basic apps and automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks. All without writing a line of code or involving highly paid professional coders. 

Of course, the reality is more complicated – not everyone will have time or incentive to engage with yet more tools and pros will still be needed to take on the more complex development. But motivation is strong to reduce dependence on high cost human skills. By empowering non-technical employees to tackle the simple bottlenecks and inefficiencies, organisations can quickly achieve savings from automation. Not to mention the added bonus of machine learning capabilities such as natural language interpretation and object recognition. 

The impacts are immediate, in contrast to the uncertain outcome of policy initiatives to train more coders or promote apprenticeships. 

What role then for technical education? 

We could start by clarifying the term ‘digital skills’. It’s not only school-leavers who are confused about career paths; professional development is a lifelong activity for everyone. But which skills and how do you get them? 

The LWI defines ‘basic’ skills as proficiency with Microsoft Office and “the ability to process digital information and content; the ability to communicate digitally” and, crucially, “to learn new digital skills”. 

Employers might add: the ability to work with collaboration tools, AI assistants, databases, CRM, Web and graphic design packages, and low code interfaces. 

We can blame Michael Gove for college-leavers’ lack of familiarity with Word and Excel these days. Binning the obsolete ICT GCSE and A-level four years ago was long overdue. But Computer Science is not a direct replacement. Coding and computational logic is valuable study in itself but doesn’t expose young people to Office, Google Suite, Salesforce or other software that is central to businesses of all sizes. 

Perhaps these tools won’t be as important in the future anyway. The real challenge is to bridge the gap between the dynamism needed in skills training and what we have today.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of competence-based assessment, introduced with NVQs back in the 1990s, set vocational education on an overly narrow and over-specified path that has poorly served employers and young people. If policy makers listen to what employers really need, the answer will be quite varied and subject to periodic change. This doesn’t fit with a homogenous, slow-moving assessment regime with armies of technical assessors. 

Digital apprenticeships are built on this competences approach. They are a good on-ramp to entry-level IT roles, but employers need to see a better return on the 20% off-the-job training. The apprentice spends much of this time documenting their workplace activity. But the employer already knows what the apprentice does – it’s the assessor who demands detailed written evidence. Further undermining the relevance of IT apprenticeships, mandatory vendor exams were quietly removed from these programmes from January this year. Many apprentices will miss the opportunity to gain recognised professional certifications. 

So what can be done right now? 

An employer who responded to the LWI report hit it on the head: “We need digital literacy and common sense, not someone who can program a Raspberry Pi to control a robot.” 

Addressing the skills gap starts with acknowledging that vendor solutions shape the technology world. Employers need access to a flexible pool of funding for professional training to be delivered as needed and in subjects relevant to the business. Vendor courses needn’t be solely focused on certifications. They can, and should, be tailored to the needs of employers, or groups of smaller employers who have similar requirements.

Secondly, the assessment regime needs scaling back to focus on relevant and workplace-specific outcomes for the young person – their career progression, responsibilities, and salary. The employer is then where they should be – directly overseeing their employees’ development. The third vital component is to standardise workplace mentoring. Many supervisors would welcome training that better equips them to support their trainees and team members. The benefits are then available throughout the organisation, rather than outsourced to commercial training providers.  

These proposals are more about scaling back provision that isn’t working than investing in anything radically new. Skills development is a professional competence in itself. By embedding it in business strategic planning, rather than over-finessed standards, a digital-led recovery starts to look feasible.

Do you agree? Drop me a line to share your perspective.