Educating digital talent for the future of work

What needs to happen from an industry, government and sector perspective to make digital education fit for purpose

According to a 2019 UK government report, 82% of all advertised roles required either specific or baseline digital skills. Basic digital skills drive career advancement, increase pay and better prepare workers for the future job market, whilst specific digital capabilities offer a secure pathway to the best paid, fastest-growing jobs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated these trends as digital transformation has increased across the entire economy. Yet, as technology and digital innovation continues at unprecedented speed, Accenture forecasts that the growing digital skills gap risks losing up to US$11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP in the G20 countries over the next decade.

Therefore, to successfully recover from the current crisis, the development of digital capabilities across the workforce must be made a critical priority. To achieve this at the level and scale required, our entire education system from primary through to post-secondary must evolve and adapt to better meet the needs of the 21st century digital economy.

Bridging the gap between academia and business

As the key vehicle for developing the capabilities required by an increasingly advanced digital economy, universities have a key role to play in addressing this digital skills gap at scale.

Digital skills are the order of the day, but individuals and employers still look to universities to develop the creative and complex higher-order capabilities that are even more important in today’s fast-moving digital environment. Universities are therefore uniquely positioned to combine this traditional expertise with the development of applied digital skills to offer highly impactful learning experiences aligned to the future of work. An education that combines the best of both worlds prepares learners with the technical skills they need to secure a role in the digital economy, and equips them with the higher-order capabilities to accelerate their careers.

To realise this opportunity, universities must effectively bridge the gap between academia and industry. Adopting a partnership model both for content creation and delivery of digital skills curriculum is a route many universities are now considering to achieve this goal. Fast moving, specialist curricula can be expertly developed and designed with industry and distributed in a way that it can be rolled out rapidly, regularly updated and adapted for use. Universities can then build on this reliable core base of content to tailor the courses they want to offer to deliver the best possible experience to their audience. Universities can work with partners to connect their graduates to high growth career paths at digital companies. This approach reflects the agile way of working that characterises the broader digital economy with each partner able to focus on their key areas of expertise.

“As the key vehicle for developing the capabilities required by an increasingly advanced digital economy, universities have a key role to play in addressing this digital skills gap at scale”

Whilst many universities already have long-standing relationships with industry partners such as IBM or Cisco, collaborations need to be broadened to reflect the wider digital economy, and include platforms such as Github, Atlassian, Salesforce, AWS and many more. This does not mean that universities should become digital product training schools, but instead is a call for learners to be afforded the opportunity to solve complex problems by leveraging in-demand enterprise technologies that align to the needs of employers in the real world.

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Project-based learning compliments this approach, whilst practical and applied assessments support the development of learner portfolios that can be shared with employers to demonstrate in-demand capabilities and the ability to hit the ground running from the moment they are employed.

Next steps in delivering cutting edge digital skills education 

For universities considering their digital offer, there are two key questions we would encourage them to consider.

Firstly, how successfully are they preparing graduates of their traditional degree programmes to enter and prosper in the digital economy? This includes an assessment of the knowledge, skills and applied learning opportunities of their degree programmes, and a determination of how these need to evolve to best align to the digital economy. Importantly, this means building upon and complementing the value of the traditional university learning experience.

Secondly, how can they adapt their traditional offerings to best meet the needs of the modern learner, and support them throughout their lifelong learning journey? Thinking beyond traditional undergraduate and master’s degrees, to provide innovative learning experiences that support the goals of a diverse learner base in a manner that’s accessible to all. This may include alternative credentials that support short-term life and career goals, whilst providing affordable pathways to build these into formal academic qualifications that can underpin longer term success.

At the core of the answers to both questions should be a closer union of the high quality, holistic education that a university can deliver and the practical, applied needs of modern digital businesses. Universities that can strike this balance and offer learners the best of both worlds will set them up for career success and be able to support them along their lifelong learning journey.


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