The digital imperative – why tomorrow’s workforce urgently needs data skills today

New research by Tableau shows that tech skills development has fallen from the secondary school education agenda during the pandemic, leaving an even bigger hole for employers to try to fill, costing the the UK economy up to £2bn annually if not addressed

Data literacy, or lack of it, is a growing issue that’s having a major impact on UK businesses. The ability to read and interpret data has become an essential part of many employees’ working day across diverse industries including retail, manufacturing and financial services. Once siloed within data analytics and business intelligence teams, employees across an organisation, whether in the finance department, HR or marketing, are now exploring dashboards, and having conversations that lead to data-driven decisions.

As the current national school curriculum stands, students are left ill-equipped when learning how to process data, with maths only providing a limited knowledge of statistics and probability. The knock-on effect of this is that businesses must then tackle the issue, often by hiring outside the organisation rather than investing in reskilling or upskilling their existing employees.

Employability hit hardest by lockdown

For students, the pandemic has even further stifled their ability to learn these essential skills, with new research commissioned by Tableau finding that more than half (54%) of students feel they have missed out on developing data analysis and communication skills, which are prerequisites in so many of today’s professional roles.

Our nationwide research, which explored the impact of lockdown on the education of pupils in years’ 10-13, also found that less than half (47%) of students feel their school education has prepared them for the world of work, while almost two fifths (38%) are unaware of the key skills sought after by employers.

“As the current national school curriculum stands, students are left ill-equipped when learning how to process data, with maths only providing a limited knowledge of statistics and probability”

A Royal Society report published during the first lockdown suggested that school time lost due to COVID-19 could harm the UK economy for the next 65 years, largely due to its negative impact on the future skills of the workforce.

We have worked with Professor Pat Tissington, academic director of employability and skills at the University of Warwick, to explore the extent of the impact of the current data skills gap in the UK education system. He believes that to speed up the UK’s economic recovery, it’s vital that educational institutions at all levels prepare pupils for the world of work and give greater focus to the skills that are becoming increasingly important for employers, such as data analysis.

Data skills are relevant for a wide range of roles, yet our research shows that almost half (47%) of students find the concept of data analysis a little scary. This precedes the pandemic; in the last two years, almost half (46%) of UK businesses have struggled to recruit for roles that require data skills. More needs to be done to equip pupils with the digital skills they need in the workplace if the UK is to avoid a huge data skills gap.

Digital know-how – a prerequisite to employment

For UK employers, the need for digital skills has spread far beyond traditional IT job roles, with two in three (68%) job postings outside the technology sector seeking data-literate candidates and many lower-skilled roles demanding basic data literacy skills. Meanwhile, the lack of data-driven skills could have a severe impact on the UK economy – costing as much as £2bn annually.

Although lockdown disrupted skills learning, we know that there was already a failure to teach data skills in schools. This seriously limits career opportunities for young people right across the country, and those who aren’t able to demonstrate the skills that employers now need will be at the back of the jobs queue. This chance that we have as a nation to build back better is a unique opportunity for a resetting of priorities when it comes to ensuring our children are best prepared for life beyond school.

“Although lockdown disrupted skills learning, we know that there was already a failure to teach data skills in schools”

It’s not just the responsibility of schools, colleges and universities to teach pupils the digital skills they need – but future employers too. Several businesses, including Tableau, offer data literacy e-learning courses for children, young people, and adults, to help anyone learn the foundational data skills they need for the ever-evolving requirements of employers. Tableau wants to play its part in investing in the UK’s digital economy, and providing students with the tools necessary to see and understand data is a part of that.


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