Solving the digital skills paradox – recovery in 2021 and beyond

Plugging the digital skills gap is a top priority for the UK government. But pinning down exactly what skills are most in demand, or will be in the near future, is not straightforward. 

Roxanne Morison, Head of Digital Policy at the CBI, cited in a recent Microsoft-sponsored report, highlights the UK’s challenge of “a long tail of low productivity firms” that lack confidence in cloud, digital marketing and data. 

It’s a well-known paradox that while innovation in new technology occurs rapidly, adoption into the business mainstream often takes much longer than expected. Many companies apply their innovative talents to extend the life of existing IT systems. It’s not uncommon for ‘obsolete’ software, servers and mainframes to be patched up and customised far beyond their natural lifespan. 

So how should policy makers promote digital skills for recovery? And how can young people, and those newly out of work, prepare themselves to develop those skills? 

Julian Perrott, Co-chair of East Sussex County Council’s Creative and Digital Task Group, says it’s important to consider common requirements across all sectors, not just the digital sector itself. 

“Construction, tourism, leisure and education all need a range of digital skillsets these days as they increasingly rely on cloud platforms. Many of these Software as a Service platforms (SaaS) are specific to each sector, but skills for working with them are similar.” 

Furthermore, many of the most popular SaaS platforms are used across sectors: Content Management Systems (CMS) for websites, such as WordPress, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) for sales and marketing, such as Salesforce, and Microsoft 365 for productivity and collaboration. 

“Going back 30 years, ‘digital skills’ were a rare thing. Can you write an email or work with a spreadsheet? Companies these days don’t need so many more skills, but you do need the ability to use SaaS platforms such as Salesforce.”

The Task Group identifies three roles in high demand in East Sussex: software development, digital marketing, and cybersecurity. 

For a young person looking to be a developer, choosing which programming languages to learn can be difficult. Every year the languages in most demand shift somewhat and, inevitably, college courses tend to lag the trend by a few years. 

As MD of BarkWeb, a web development and marketing agency, Perrott looks for attributes in the individual rather than their proficiency in one language or another. 

“We have two very successful programmers who are predominantly self-taught. What they have in common is a genuine interest in the subject and a hunger to continually improve their techniques and skills.” Perrott says the ability to think through a process and break it down into computational stages is more important than the flavour of code. “The methodology is similar with different languages. It’s like if you speak English and French it’s not difficult to learn Italian.”

Perrott has an interesting idea to help employers send a clear message about the skills they need at any given time. He’d like to see all employers dedicate a page of their website to listing the skills they are currently seeking. “A young person could be looking at 10 potential employers. This would let them find out what the common factors are between them in terms of skills.”  To find out more, you can contact Julian at