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It’s official. The UK is facing a digital skills crisis. This comes as no surprise to those of us who work in this area. But it has now been recognised by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee who last week published the report of their inquiry into the digital skills gap, the Digital Skills Crisis. As one of the witnesses, I welcome this report.
Across the UK we have a technology skills shortage at all levels: from Basic Digital Skills to more intermediate level skills, right up to the most advanced skills. Across the UK, 12.6 million adults – that’s almost 1 in 4 – and 1.2m small and medium-sized businesses lack even the basic skills needed to send an email, apply for a job, or shop online. At the same time, business is telling us that 85% of technical positions are difficult to fill because of a lack of specialist skills.
The Committee is right to focus on our education and apprenticeship pipeline because this is not just a generational issue. Our young “digital natives” are not as savvy as we think. A 2013 O2 report stated that only 20% of the technology jobs required by 2017 could be filled by the current generation of 16-25 year olds. If four-fifths of our technology jobs are not suitable for our up-and-coming digital generation, the skills gap won’t close any time soon.
Without urgent action the nation’s lack of digital skills will continue to hold back economic growth, productivity and social mobility. And yet we know that the return on investment to upskill our nation is compelling. To ensure our UK adult population is fit for the digital age would cost £1.65 billion up to 2025. But over that period the net present value would be a staggering £14.3 billion – a benefit of almost £10 for every £1 invested.
If this huge benefit to the country is not convincing enough, what about the benefit to individuals?. Online households are on average £744 per year better off; 72% of employers would not interview entry level candidates without IT skills; and once in work, people with good digital skills earn between 3% and 10% more than those without. Digital skills are essential for everyone at every level, but it is usually those that could benefit the most that are being left behind. That’s not ok.
I’m delighted to see that many of our recommendations to the Committee have been reflected in the report. But will they be acted on? The continuing delay in producing the long-awaited government digital strategy shows a lack of joined-up government leadership, something Ed Vaizey MP, Minister of State for the Digital Economy, admitted in his own evidence. Either government takes the lead in addressing the digital skills crisis or it picks an organisation or group of organisations to take the lead for it. A partnership approach across all sectors is of course the right way forward, but that requires political support and championing. I hope the Committee’s report will catalyse just that.