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Carry on learning: digital skills and lifelong education

Continuous learning is the way to address the productivity and skills crisis in the UK, says Julian Wragg of Pluralsight

Posted by Charley Rogers | August 30, 2017 | Business

Britain’s well-documented shortage of digital skills in the workforce places a timely reminder on our competition on the world stage. How long can we expect the country to hold its own in the digital talent stakes against those with larger populations such as China and India, or those with advanced expertise like Japan and Silicon Valley? Encouraging people and businesses to be conversant with digital skills and to take a proactive approach to continuous learning will be crucial for the country’s next phase of growth, especially as we have ambitions to be a leading digital economy.

This is not to say that the Government are dallying on the issue however. The publication of the Digital Strategy in March 2017 showed their aspiration to make the UK an accommodating environment for digital business. Then, the Chancellor went further in his budget with a £40 million pledge to pilot lifelong learning programmes. This combines well with the offer of four million free digital skills training courses to individuals, SMEs and charities over the strategy’s lifetime.

However, tackling the skills shortage will require a much broader solution. Research from Good Things Foundation has found that 90% of all new jobs require digital skills, with 72% of employers revealing that they would not even interview a candidate who did not possess basic computer skills. Yet currently 11% of the nation has never used the internet. Digital inclusion must be a priority to ensure no one is left behind and the gap does not widen. Leeds City Council’s campaign “100% Digital Leeds” is paving the way, launching a new initiative to equip thousands of digitally excluded residents with basic online skills.

There are also changes in demographics to consider. Life expectancy has risen and people are working longer than previous generations. The job for life is well and truly over. We cannot predict the series of careers we will have in our lifetimes—some of those jobs haven’t even been created yet. Nor do we know how the advances in automation and machine learning will shape our career paths. Instead, we should all develop a thirst for continuous and lifelong learning – the only way to ensure our skills adapt and don’t become obsolete.

90% of all new jobs require digital skills, with 72% of employers revealing that they would not even interview a candidate who did not possess basic computer skills.

This is especially important as the UK is currently battling a productivity crisis. According to the ONS, the UK ranks 16 percentage points lower in terms of GDP per hour than the rest of the G7 group of countries. To help solve the skills and productivity gap, we need to dramatically shift our thinking towards workplace training right now, as it could take years for the measures proposed in the Digital Strategy to deliver the desired results.

This point is highlighted by the Barclays Digital Development Index which reports only 38% of UK workers are offered training in digital skills by their employers. We also fare poorly on workforce capability, ranking seventh out of 10 countries when it comes to assessment of content creation and coding skills. Further, over half of the UK’s digital community told Tech City that there is a shortage of highly skilled employees, with nearly a quarter of companies describing sourcing talent as a ‘major challenge’.

The Government will quickly realise that physical classrooms and one-to-one training cannot deliver its training ambitions at scale. The Internet has been a great leveller for education, and now it is democratising professional technology learning. Online courses accessible at any time of day allow far greater numbers of people to acquire the latest digital skills.

There are already some encouraging signs that the UK is making good strides towards what commentators are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. According to the latest Tech Nation report from Tech City, the turnover of the UK’s digital tech businesses reached £170 billion, an increase of £30billion in just five years.

To help solve the skills and productivity gap, we need to dramatically shift our thinking towards workplace training right now, as it could take years for the measures proposed in the Digital Strategy to deliver the desired results.

When you visit companies throughout the country you get a sense of the community that is being built around digital. 22,000 coding meetups took place in London last year, and the capital has twice as many Github users as Paris or Berlin. Leeds is home to over 300 digital startups, and Bristol to 225, according to the latest figures from Tech Nation.

To put this into perspective, Tech City believes the GVA (Gross Value Added) of a digital tech worker in the UK is more than twice that of a non-digital tech worker—£103,000 compared to £50,000. And with £6.8 billion VC funding in 2016 - 50%more than any other European country - Britain is clearly on the right track.

Today’s tech talent shortage cannot be allowed to get any worse, and we need to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue digital careers. But at the same time, companies must realise the vital role they need to play in upskilling employees. Only by embracing continuous learning will it be possible for the UK to remain competitive on the global stage whilst creating a future workforce that has the job security and relevant expertise for our post-Brexit digital economy. 

Julian Wragg is VP EMEA & APAC at Pluralsight, an enterprise technology learning platform.

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