Let’s get digital, digital – let’s get into digital!

Everyone deserves the chance to participate in this inherently digital and increasingly flexible world – but are education and training systems equipped to prepare the current and future workforce for new and emerging demands?

Can you picture an office without a computer? Even a school, or your own home?

Where books in the local library were once the primary resource for personal research, we now live in a seemingly parallel universe where self-education can quickly be achieved using search engines in the palms of our smartphone-filled hands.

Bank notes? Coins? Notepads? Countless daily staples of 10, 20 years ago have been rapidly replaced by convenient digital alternatives, from the cashless to the paperless.

These changes have, undoubtedly, made our lives easier. Yet, it’s almost impossible that such transformative change could have occurred in such a short space of time without leaving a breadcrumb (or in this case loaf-laden) trail of challenges.

Introducing the digital skills gap: a phrase used to describe the disconnect between those in the workplace and the skills that are required for modern jobs. It’s a novel problem, but its novelty doesn’t mean that it can be ignored.

BT estimates that at present, the digital skills gap is costing the UK economy £63 billion a year, with 10% of the UK workforce lacking basic digital skills. The World Economic Forum (WEF), meanwhile, anticipates that more than 54% of all employees globally will require significant reskilling by 2022.

“…in the next few years we will see tectonic plate shifts of digital disruption that will shrink 40 years’ worth of change into just 48 months” – David Carter, Entelechy Academy

“If we think we have seen a lot of digital change in the last 40 years, we would be correct when comparing to the previous 400 years,” states David Carter, chairman and founder of the Entelechy Academy – an organisation dedicated to assisting individuals with personal and professional development.

“However, in the next few years we will see tectonic plate shifts of digital disruption that will shrink 40 years’ worth of change into just 48 months.”

Expanding the banner of digital skills

Indeed, the digital skills gap is a growing challenge, and one that will likely punish complacency in the not-too-distant future. So, what’s the solution?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple fix. Numerous cogs will have to align effectively if the gap is to be bridged.

The role that education has to play, however, should not be understated.

More than 1.7 million people are out of work in the UK,” explains Sheila Flavell CBE – COO of FDM Group, and chair of the Institute of Coding (IoC)’s Industry Advisory Board.

“This has created an opportunity for a national pivot to digital skills, which will support the UK’s economic recovery. But there is an urgent need for flexible and accessible digital skills education so that a diverse group of people can upskill to take advantage of the well-paying jobs that are available in the tech sector.”

The IoC is one organisation actively addressing the current skills challenge. Namely, it is creating a strong pipeline of talent through innovative university and industry collaboration to ensure people can continue to upskill digitally and enhance their employability.

Indeed, this begs another question – what skills do people need?

The answer is twofold: first, the more obvious element – hard skills. These are usually skills focused on specific tasks or processes. They are typically knowledge-based, allowing employees to tackle particular duties and deliver on specific responsibilities.

Microsoft MEA’s senior director of education Harb Bou-Harb explains what’s required in the context of the digital skills gap.

“There will be strong demand for professionals who can blend digital and STEM skills with traditional subject expertise,” he explains, “who combine deep knowledge of their industry with the latest analytical tools to quickly adapt business strategies.

“These competencies include the traditional digital ‘hard’ skills such as coding, programming, and similar digital literacies.”

Second, yet equally important, are soft skills.

Soft skills refer to character and personality traits, people skills, social intelligence, communication skills, attitudes, mindsets and the like. These are generally the characteristics that will never be replicated accurately by machines – they are what make us human.

“It is important that soft skills are included under the banner of digital skills” – Harb Bou-Harb, Microsoft MEA

“Soft skills represent the digital emotional intelligence necessary to learn and effectively use digital skills in an interconnected community,” Bou-Harb adds. “It is important that soft skills are included under the banner of digital skills. Integration of hard and soft skills is vital to achieving successful computational thinking – the two go hand-in-hand.”

Embracing digital blueprints

Indeed, Microsoft, Entelechy Academy and the IoC are each acutely aware of the fact that the buck does not simply stop with educators. Employers and companies also need to take significant responsibility in providing upskilling opportunities, both for the greater good and their own benefit.

There’s no scope for heads to be buried in sand. A business model that’s working tech-free today will likely begin to falter in five, 10, 15 years’ time due to the changing landscape, and to avoid such a demise, businesses likewise need to be proactive in their approach.

The platforms for digital talent to thrive through relevant training and other opportunities are vital. In providing these, recruitment and retainment will become easier, while internal skills development will also occur and deliver meaningful benefit to businesses themselves.

Indeed, this is not entirely plain sailing. Owing to the rate of technological change, companies are often having to prepare employees for technologies that do not yet exist.

Is it possible to do this? Technically speaking, no, but there are fundamental principles to be aware of that will apply to all new technologies.

“Data and data analysis will become ever increasingly prevalent in all sectors requiring a fundamental understanding of mathematics and computational thinking, but especially for future careers, some of which have not even been invented yet,” explains Microsoft’s Bou-Harb.

“Connectivity will also increase, not just between people, but also devices and objects via the internet of things. Artificial intelligence and machine learning will show dramatic benefits to almost every aspect of life but will also present new challenges of how to use them ethically as a good digital citizen, while virtual and augmented reality will possibly redefine what it means to interact with people and machines.

“These technologies are the blueprints that will help to innovate and shape the tools of the future.”

Ensuring educational equality

There are other challenging factors at play; some individuals will be better placed to upskill, reskill and ride on the coattails of transition, while others, by way of societal and demographic factors, will not.

So, how do we ensure the disadvantaged are not left behind, and that equal access is prioritised?

“We know that different people need different entry points and options for upskilling,” explains Flavell, citing the attitudes of the IoC. “A traditional three-year university degree may not be accessible for some people, whether that’s due to cost, caring responsibilities or other barriers.

“The IoC is providing a variety of programmes, including short, flexible courses that have a focus on improving employability. As a result, there has been a real increase in the participation of women and other underrepresented groups. We’ve now got 46% women on our online digital skills course, despite women currently only accounting for 16% of the total number of computer science graduates in the UK.”

Microsoft has embarked on similar endeavours to promote digital skills equality, working with UNESCO on its Global Skills Academy Initiative that offers free online courses and real-world tools, allowing individuals to build skills in novel technologies.

Indeed, efforts such as these are vital to ensuring people of all demographics and backgrounds are able to help bridge the UK’s digital skills gap.

One person should not be prioritised over another based on how easy it is for them to access the necessary education. Enthusiasm, willingness, potential and drive should instead form the foundation of this new education economy.

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