A government report titled “Digital Skills Crisis” finds that almost six million people in Britain have never used the internet and more than twelve million lack basic digital knowledge.
The report was presented in the House of Commons by the Science and Technology Committee, which warned that Britain was experiencing a “digital crisis.” The committee believes that such a crisis is damaging the country’s productivity and hampering its economic competitiveness. Specifically, the digital skills gap costs the UK economy an estimated $89 billion a year in lost GDP.
Individuals’ lack of digital familiarity also prevents them from meeting the rising employment demand. Almost 90% of jobs require digital skills, and 72% of employers are unwilling to interview candidates without basic computing skills. The vast majority of companies’ records and communications have been digitized. If this demand is not met, the report finds that the UK will need to rely on foreign workers or outsourcing. The UK will need an estimated 745,000 additional workers with digital skills by 2017.
The report paints a dismal picture of the country’s digital skills education programs. Currently, 22% of IT equipment in schools across the UK is outdated or ineffective. Moreover, only 35% of computer science teachers in educational institutions have a relevant qualification and recruitment processes have lagged.
Students are not receiving the institutional support needed to develop a strong background in digital skills — and with such a background lacking, these young people will not be able to compete for the jobs demanding digital savvy. Unsurprisingly, these sort of jobs offer the best wages and provide the most opportunities for upward mobility.
“Digital exclusion has no place in 21st century Britain,” the committee said. “While the government is to be commended for the actions taken so far to tackle aspects of the digital skills crisis, stubborn digital exclusion and systemic problems with digital education and training need to be addressed as a matter of urgency in the government’s forthcoming digital strategy.”
The Science Committee questioned why the current government has dragged its feet in delivering on the “Digital Strategy,” which was supposed to use technology to connect education, industry, and government. To achieve such an end, the government must be more aggressive in pursuing this strategy, the report concludes as it offers policy suggestions on how to improve UK citizens’ digital competencies, especially those of students and young people.
Digital training should become a core component in all apprenticeships regardless of whether the work being conducted has a direct involvement with computers and technology, the committee states. Furthermore, all universities must be equipped with job-oriented and vocational-focused digital career advice to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds develop the skills needed to thrive in an increasingly digitized economy.
The government must also work to train employees who currently lack the digital skills needed to optimize their productivity. Close to 4.5 million of the 12.6 million people who lack basic digital skills are employed by companies that have the means to familiarize their employees with digital technology. These industries must be incentivised to equip and educate their employees with digital skills.
Visa policies should also be changed to secure employees from abroad who meet the demands for digital knowledge so that the economy does not lag too far behind. Specifically, the “shortage requirements” of IT jobs under “Tier 2 visas” need to be reevaluated.
“The UK leads Europe on tech, but we need to take concerted action to avoid falling behind,” said the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Nicola Blackwood. We need to make sure tomorrow’s workforce is leaving school or university with the digital skills that employers need.”
For interested readers, the full report is available online.