We’re heading for a digital skills crisis

David Glennie
October 6, 2023

But where's the opportunity?

According to the latest figures from The Learning & Work Institute’s there’s been a 40% drop in people taking GCSE IT since 2015 suggesting we are in for a digital skills crisis in the UK. I found that surprising. But what really made me think was that 1. the research also found that 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, and that 2. only half of the employers surveyed in the study are able to provide that training.

There’s clearly a disconnect – a desire to learn against a backdrop of, according to Accenture, pent up demand for AI, robotics and application development among employers.

So where is it going wrong?

Looking back over my career, there’s long been a debate on how we encourage school children’s interest in STEM and then help them step into related higher education and careers.

There’s also, and quite rightly, an emphasis on girls in STEM and I often find myself looking on at awe at the many charities and organisations that dedicate themselves to tackling the problem head on and closing the gaps in education.

Working in the field I do, there’s no doubt in my mind that the world needs curious minds that understands the power of digital, but also has the empathetic skills needed to deliver transformational projects.

But the more I read about the topic, the more I appreciate that it’s complex to fix, and always highlights to me that we need to look at the problem, or opportunity if you are a glass half full person like me, with a broad lens.

Digital tech moves at breakneck speed. I think back to days when I was involved in launching some of the world’s first mobile internet services and how different they are compared to the sort of integration projects I do today. They are light and shade in comparison.

It tells us that a GCSE course has to stay with the times. That’s easier said than done. At the same time, employers should realise that they won’t get the perfect skills all the time from school leavers and the person they employ today won’t have a ‘current’ skill set by next year. It will require an investment in training to keep people at the leading edge of technical and digital developments.

I also believe it will take drive on the part of the employee. Turning up to training is one thing, bringing an inquisitive mind to work and looking at technology under your own steam is also vital. No employer can cover it all – you don’t know what you don’t know.

So while prescriptive learning that’s aligned to the company strategy should be in place at work, it’s also worth encouraging a love of ‘life long-learning’. At VDP we try to support people in their ambition to explore and experiment as it’s a critical part of keeping people engaged, motivated and inspired in what they do, and ultimately leads to the work that surpasses the expectations of our clients.

We often have catch ups instigated by team members about the new techniques and technologies they have discovered and are excited by because of the possibilities for clients. That’s precious and something I wish I could bottle.

I also think there’s a perception among school leavers that certain industries are more exciting than others. In fact, Computer Weekly underlined this with an article that suggested the traditional insurance industry is suffering a skills deficit more than any other sector because it is considered antiquated and old fashioned

I have to agree, if I were 14 again and making my GSCE options then the chance to learn about robotics does sound more interesting than the skills needed to manage claims management software for insurance.

There I think lies the rub. If you are just starting out, then the world is your oyster and choosing one industry over another is naturally going to be your prerogative.

What can we do then? I can’t say I have all the answers, but what I do know is that the people who work at VDP love learning, they like solving problems, they like to be the best and they want to be happy at work. It just so happens they use digital skills to achieve their goals.

Perhaps then we need to flip the opportunity we face on its head and give young people an insight into what they can do with a mix of skills. Introduce them to different kinds of work digital skills afford them – you could work for an insurance company developing software, or you could work for a software company that cracks problems for the insurance industry before moving on to the pharmaceutical industry, or retail. It presents more choice.

However one thing I think we all need to do, is to stay in tune with what people want. The more we recruit people the more I realise motivations are changing. People want to genuinely change the world, and they want to be happy while they do it. Digital skills are a route to achieve it. As an industry we just have to help them realise it in theory and in practice, be that through education, apprenticeships or on the job training. Put simply we can’t have it all. We have to make it happen.