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Why the UK must invest in digital skills

Why the UK must invest in digital skills
(Image credit: Pixabay)

If the past few months have taught us one thing, our digital, technological, and IT infrastructure is the bedrock of our global economy. Without it, 200 million higher education students and more than 555 million workers worldwide would have been unable to study or work while lockdown restrictions kept them at home. The world would have ground to a halt.

It serves as a timely reminder of something the technology industry has been propagating for years: digital skills are critical and in short supply. In fact, in a post-pandemic world, these skills will be vital to every country’s economic recovery.

However, worryingly, our 2020 Global Skills Index (GSI) report shows that the UK is already struggling with skills in this domain. The report draws on performance data from 65 million learners across 60 countries. It provides an early analysis of how COVID-19 has impacted the global skills landscape and it signals the UK lagging behind in many essential digital skills.

Powerhouse Europe

According to GSI, Europe has emerged as a skills powerhouse compared to the rest of the world. It is home to 15 of the most-skilled countries. Among them are Russia (1st globally for both technology and computer science skills), Belarus (2nd globally for technology skills and 3rd for data science skills) and Switzerland (3rd globally for technology skills and 2nd for data science skills). But the UK only ranks 23rd in technology skills and 24th in data science skills, globally.

On top of this, many of The UK’s tech companies claim that uncertainty around visas and work permits due to Brexit is pushing skilled European workers away. These concerns will continue growing as Brexit negotiations carry on.

But perhaps most worrying of all, is the fact that even before the pandemic started, the UK was already seriously struggling to hire talent with relevant technology and data science skills. According to research by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, nearly half of all employers reported concern over the talent pool drying up in the years ahead. The pandemic will heighten these challenges.

Consumer goods skills shortage

Nowhere is this skills shortage more apparent than in the UK’s consumer goods industry – one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. At the start of the country’s national lockdown, the UK high-streets fell silent as retailers were forced to close down temporarily. Many of these retailers have chosen to remain closed for good as a lack of revenue makes it the only option to survive, turning digital ecommerce interactions into the new normal.

But, as our Global Skills Index shows, in the UK, the industry only has a 23 percent skill proficiency in technology. It will likely struggle to maintain an only digital approach in the longer-term, as it becomes more than just an emergency ‘quick fix’.

To overcome this challenge, we’re seeing businesses quickly innovate and rethink how they can delight customers through online experiences. While they figure this out, workers are being left in limbo, anxiously wondering when they will return to work - and if their roles will still exist.

For example, Virgin Media has already announced exiting the UK high street. Its network of more than 50 retail stores will stay shut once the coronavirus lockdown ends. Zara, will also be closing down 1,200 stores around the world in an attempt to boost sales.

The new normal

Beyond the consumer goods industry, the situation is not much different. Even as life slowly resumes, the new ‘normal’ is going to look much more digital. All organisations will need to accelerate their transformation efforts, to adjust.

In other words, without the skills to fuel digital transformation, the UK faces a roadblock to its economic recovery. With Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s recent announcement that the UK Government will be reversing its commitment to get 50 percent of England’s young people into university, finding other ways to invest in learning and development has never been so crucial - not just among young people, but among adults of all ages.

The current educational infrastructure in the UK must be modernized. Among other things, universities will need to look to partner with businesses across industries to provide course content that maps closely to real-world jobs. Traditional on-campus learning will need to be complemented with high-quality, online courses that are more widely accessible and flexible to everyone, encouraging life-long learning. 

Our approach to the overall learning experience has to change, nobody - no matter the age - can be excluded from it. Because there are inevitably going to be many individuals forced to reassess their skillsets; upgrade, or even completely relaunch their careers. Investing in flexible learning pathways and empowering people with the tools they need to adapt will therefore be crucial to ensure everyone has equal opportunities.

  • Anthony Tattersall, Head of EMEA at Coursera