The UK’s digital skills divide is becoming a chasm. Here’s how to tackle it

As employer demand for digital skills continues to grow, the report shows that digital skills training has is declining.

Tony Burke is Assistant General Secretary at British trade union Unite and the Trade Union Congress’s General Council lead on employment and trade union rights.

Is the UK heading for a digital skills disaster? A new report which highlights the massive gap in digital skills provision which is already costing the UK billions in lost growth thinks so.

‘Disconnected: Exploring the digital skills gap’, published by the Learning & Work Institute and commissioned by WorldSkills UK in partnership with Engineering ‘sector Connector’ Enginuity, says the UK could face a major digital shock post pandemic. The report also says that while young, people believe that the digital gap will be ‘fixed’.

As employer demand for digital skills continues to grow, the report shows that digital skills training has is declining. The numbers of young people taking digital skills subjects at GCSE has fallen by 40% since 2015. Shockingly, A Levels, further education courses and apprenticeships are also all declining.

Under half of UK employers (48%) believe that young people are leaving full-time education without the advanced digital skills they need. In addition, 76% of businesses believe that a lack of digital skills will hit profitability.

Dr Neil Bentley–Gockmann, of WorldSkills UK said: “Assumptions that the current digital skills gap will be closed in the months and years to come are misplaced. As business demand for advanced digital skills is growing, fewer young people are studying the subject which could if allowed to go unchecked, lead to a significant shortfall in provision.

“We need to plug shortages by inspiring more young women as well as young men to understand that digital careers are for them, and we also need to ensure the skills they are developing are of the highest quality to meet employer and economic needs.

“This is crucial for attracting much-needed foreign inward investment to create jobs across the UK and help the economy grow. Other major global economies are ahead of the UK in valuing high-quality digital skills to help drive their competitiveness and productivity, we need to act now to ensure the UK is not left behind.”

Stephen Evans, chief executive of Learning and Work Institute, said: “The number of people taking IT courses across GCSE, A-Level, further education and apprenticeships has declined in recent years. We need to see a step-change in ambition on digital skills, with government, employers, providers and local areas working together to deliver the digital skills we will need.” 

Research shows that 60% of all job losses during the pandemic have been among 16 to 24 year olds and that there is a growing digital divide across the UK with London having both the highest levels of demand for digital skills.

There is also a stark gender gap in digital skills, with young women under-represented at every level. Women account for just 22% of GCSE entrants in IT subjects, 17% of A Level entrants, 23% of apprenticeship starts in ICT, and 16% of undergraduate starts in computer science.

Enginuity, the skills body for the engineering and manufacturing sector, says “sweeping changes are needed to stave off digital deprivation and the impending skills gap.”

Enginuity says it will work to build a better working world and enable young people to find meaningful work and careers. Notably, this includes diversity within digital careers in Engineering and Manufacturing. It also involves building links between providers and Industry and ensuring that digital skills are built at each stage of lifelong learning. 

The National Manufacturing Skills Task Force, which includes employers, skills bodies, the TUC and CSEU is campaigning for a skills strategy to help the UK economy recover from the pandemic and guide the way to the future in manufacturing. The organisation said there is a need to bring together the best thinking from across the various sectors to explore how we can ensure that the digital skills requirements of employers are matched with the skills development opportunities that are available in the marketplace.

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