How to plug the UK’s digital skills gap

Use AI, re-think financing, and democratise education

Demand for digital skills is rapidly accelerating, as innovations in technology continue to transform practically every industry. However, evidence shows that most workers aren’t sufficiently educated in the skills needed to thrive as part of today’s digital economy.

In the UK, there are currently over 31,000 vacancies for software developers and not enough talent to fill them, and over three in four UK executives claim that it’s difficult to recruit people with the right technical skills. Add to this research from the Learning & Work Institute, which shows that 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half of the employers surveyed said they were able to provide that training.

With so many out of a job since the pandemic hit, people are desperate to reskill. In fact, open source software firm Red Hat recently reported that 1 in 20 adults across Europe started learning to code since the first lockdown. There’s clearly a role for education providers to play in supporting a new generation of tech talent. However, it’s a cross-industry issue and it’s likely we’ll see more education providers partnering with other firms in the industry if they’re to help make meaningful change.

The tech sectors most in demand

As technology moves at an increasingly fast pace, it’s created jobs in emerging sectors that didn’t exist even a decade ago. Some of the most sought-after positions to fill are roles in blockchain, cybersecurity, data analytics, and healthcare technology, the latter of which has been massively bolstered by the pandemic. But the lack of skilled candidates in these areas is making it incredibly tough for employers looking to accelerate their businesses and keep up with the competition.

“Some of the most sought-after positions to fill are roles in blockchain, cybersecurity, data analytics, and healthcare technology, the latter of which has been massively bolstered by the pandemic”

Some responsibility inevitably lies with the education sector to reskill people – no matter what stage they’re at or background they come from – to fulfil the roles in the areas that are most sought-after. Education platforms need to come together with employers and bridge the skills gap through new programmes that are more outcomes-driven. The key here is to make these courses both highly relevant and widely accessible.

The need to democratise funding

Education is only accessible if it’s affordable and the need to democratise access to education is just as important as the need to widen the talent pool. Reskilling and upskilling must become a viable option for aspirational people of every background and socioeconomic status. We need to remove the roadblocks from the existing financial system to prevent the unemployed or those on lower incomes from being left behind as the digital economy accelerates. COVID-19 has only heightened the issue of affordability, so the need for a flexible financing model that closes the inequality gap has never been greater than right now.

Helping students become ‘better off’

With the education secretary saying that “more rewarding careers” are available to school leavers by taking up technical education instead of a traditional degree, it’s clear that the education sector needs to become more fixated on digital skills. Education providers must be the authority on this, curating courses and programmes specifically designed to close the skills gap.

It’s evident that a lot of higher education institutions aren’t factoring in the future careers of their students in the courses they currently teach. While work needs to be done to get more students engaged in technology in the first place, it’s the courses on offer that must evolve to ensure that accessing learning remains worthwhile. 

Success-based financing 

Income Share Agreements (ISAs) are a financing model where the costs of tuition are covered upfront, alleviating the risk for students looking to reskill or upskill, and only repaid once a person finds employment and earns a predetermined minimum income. ISAs, therefore, focus on a student’s future potential, and not their past. This is a model that’s accessible to anyone, regardless of employment history or socio-economic background, and with more and more schools starting to adopt such models, it’s a trend that’s likely to continue.

If we are to democratise education and close our burgeoning skills gap, then this type of success-based financing solution is arguably the way to go. Deployed en masse, ISAs could transform the job market, levelling the playing field for candidates that may not otherwise have had the opportunity to reskill, especially given that they do not require a guarantor.

Capturing the data to inform digital supply and demand 

Deployed intelligently, industry data has the capability to transform the job market. Innovations in the AI and data intelligence space are allowing us to see exactly how well certain courses are aligned to job market demand, but also understand the likelihood of securing more lucrative employment for a student should he or she undertake a specific training programme. We need to put the financing capabilities and predictive data into the hands of its educational institutions so they can help drive this change by meeting the needs of employers.

Think differently 

Leaders in this space must think differently in order to generate genuine change and ISAs offer that much-needed shift from the current norms of the education sector. By offering success-based financing models, education providers will be able to secure more lucrative futures (noting the average tech salary has grown to £53,318) for a much broader spectrum of individuals, so a community of people often left behind by society’s inequality will be able to compete for those roles.

For the tech industry, this will prove invaluable. While our efforts to close the skills gap will generate positive outcomes for employers, they will also help to increase diversity in the sector. Initiating outcomes-based financing to democratise education and using AI to spot employment needs is a big step in the right direction.

You might also like: How edtech is facilitating jobs and learning


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