The UK is in the midst of a digital skills crisis. 12.6 million adults lack basic digital skills, and 5.8 million people have never used the internet at all. With almost every daily task now containing some digital component, and with basic services moving online, this portion of society risks being forgotten.
In addition to a lack of basic skills hampering quality of life, a lack of more advanced digital skills is hampering employability and productivity. Research has found that 92% of UK executives indicate gaps in IT skills at their businesses, a fact that is causing a barrier to productivity and to growth. Overall, the digital skills gap is already costing the UK economy an estimated £63 billion a year in lost additional GDP.
It is predicted that 90% of jobs will require digital skill elements in the next 20 years, yet the UK is falling behind other economies in developing these skills for the future.
With the advent of ransomware and malware related attacks plaguing businesses around the globe, the skills gap is a hindrance to not just UK productivity but security too. The consequences of not having cyber-literate staff can have a detrimental effect on a business, should a cyber-breach occur.
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Human error is usually the number one cause of data breaches, which could be the result of simply sending the wrong document to the wrong person or simply clicking before thinking and succumbing to a phishing email. Cyber-hygiene is possibly the most urgent digital skill that needs to be addressed; especially with cyber security incidents proving costly for UK firms – last year alone incidents cost firms as much as £34.1 billion.
Clearly, immediate actions are required in order for the UK to future-proof its population and economy. Changes to the UK’s position following Brexit will also make digital skills increasingly important to competing on a global field, and will likely require the government to invest in developing its own talent pool with the skills to attract businesses to the UK and reduce our dependence on overseas workers.
Upskilling the entire population will take time and require a concerted collaboration between all educational institutions from primary, to further education, and government and industry.
Apprenticeships are a key part in developing the IT industry workforce for the future. They enable more people to enter the industry and are a credible alternative to University, providing opportunities to ‘earn and learn’ and develop necessary skills that can immediately be used in the workplace.
University graduates have good theoretical knowledge but often have difficulty applying this to real-world environments that require practical experience. Apprenticeships are much more hands-on and often offer the opportunity to earn internationally recognised qualifications or certifications, such as those provided by CompTIA, to benchmark skills on a global playing field.
More organisations are starting to offer apprenticeships as they can avoid entering a bidding war for candidates with other firms, as they can bring in young recruits and train them to use the systems they have in place. This often results in more loyal and productive staff that don’t jump from pay rise to pay rise.
Both the government and businesses are beginning to understand the critical importance that these types of apprentices will play in developing the UK’s digital economy. The government has committed to reach 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, a number that will only be achievable with substantial buy-in from all types and sizes of businesses.
It is important, then, that these apprenticeships deliver skills that contribute to economic growth. Rather than focusing on just hitting their target, the government should focus on quality and type of apprenticeship too. Digital skills must be a core component of all apprenticeships and other education alongside subjects such as english and maths, to ensure the workforce of tomorrow has the fundamental digital skills required to foster productivity and boost UK industry. Furthermore, more emphasis needs to be on digital apprenticeships themselves, to create a new generation of digital leaders with the technical skills that employers are crying out for.
Despite the government’s efforts to get apprenticeships right, there is still quite a way to go. For example, the recent levy that requires businesses with a staff pay bill above £3 million to invest in apprenticeships has caused a lot of confusion for large organisations. Key criticisms include the lack of clarity around the usage of funds from the levy, with businesses not aware of its parameters or limits on where they can invest.
There’s been even less clarity for SMEs. Since the Education and Skills Funding Agency announced a tender process for delivering to employers not subject to the levy earlier this year, the process for these businesses has been fraught with difficulties, and required deadline extensions and lengthy clarifications. Training providers, who have been providing excellent quality apprenticeships to SMEs in recent years, have been left confused about the eligibility for support, and their ability to go on delivering these skills to businesses.
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These factors have contributed to the recent decrease in apprenticeship uptake. The Department for Education (DfE) recently revealed that there were just 43,600 apprenticeship starts between April and July, down from 113,000 for the same period last year: a 61% decrease. The cuts and lack of clarity also risk concentrating the apprenticeship workforce in large organisations and in cities where businesses can afford them, moving skills away from smaller towns with fewer large organisations, and harming local economies.
At a time when we are in the midst of an IT skills crisis and we need more entry routes into the industry, cuts and confusion around apprenticeship funding put us at risk of a digital skills blackout across the UK. It is vital that the government supports digital apprenticeship to enable companies of all sizes, and employees, to develop the talent they need to thrive. Only by investing in industry-relevant, in-demand digital skills, such as those created by apprenticeships, can the UK future-proof its economy and assert its position as a digital nation on the world stage.
Sourced from Graham Hunter, VP EMEA, CompTIA