Theresa May's Davos speech was optimistic about tech – but also unrealistic

More than three quarters of businesses admitted they had a digital skills shortage among their employees, indicating fundamental failings in the UK’s digital training strategy

David Willett
Thursday 25 January 2018 17:50
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Theresa May in Davos speaks on the future of technology

Today, Theresa May used her keynote address at Davos to talk about how important the growth of Artificial Intelligence and cyber skills is to Britain’s future, announcing the creation of the UK’s first Institute of Coding (IoC). The IoC brings together a world-class consortium of universities and leading tech companies – including the Open University – in a much-needed forward step for the UK, but there is much more to be done to ensure organisations are future-proofed against digital change.

Gone are the days when a company could rely on a small IT team or outsource their technology needs. Now, many roles are being re-shaped with digital skills at the heart, and entire new functions are being created to help businesses stay ahead of – or at least keep up with – the latest technological and digital developments.

While some trends come and go, growth in technology, digitisation and automation will continue to accelerate, and it’s crucial that organisations embrace these changes to remain competitive. The UK’s increasing reliance on digital skills, and its current lack of them, needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

More than three quarters of businesses admitted they had a digital skills shortage among their employees, indicating fundamental failings in the UK’s digital training strategy. The Commons’ Science and Technology Committee estimates the digital skills gap is costing the economy £63bn per year in lost GDP, so it’s clear that if leaders continue to take a “head in the sand” approach to this issue, we all lose.

Never has there been a more pressing need to prioritise digital training. With the UK facing up to the prospect of Brexit and growing political and economic instability, strong digital skills are crucial for future-proofing our organisations. Ensuring that businesses can adapt to changing environments, address new challenges and keep up with the pace of technological change could be essential for their continued success and survival.

With automation set to revolutionise the UK workforce over the next decade, we could be facing an employment catastrophe, with low-skilled personnel out of work and a shortage of the higher skills required to manage the machines. In fact, the Learning and Work Institute suggests that 9.2 million low-skilled workers will be chasing 3.1 million low-skilled jobs by 2024, but if employers invest in developing the latent potential of this demographic they could move into the new roles created.

We’re making a good start at school level, where children are taught coding and initiatives like T-levels (tech levels) are being introduced, but what about those already in employment? Organisations need to invest in training their current workforce now to make sure that they are able to seize the opportunities technology offers, which could make them make significant time and cost savings, as well as handling growing cyber security threats.

This means ensuring all employees, young and old, and regardless of seniority, are digitally literate, but to really stay ahead of the curve, organisations must offer continuous training for all their staff. The fast-moving nature of technology means that skills and knowledge can be out-of-date quickly, leaving organisations behind if they do not embrace a culture of lifelong learning.

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The introduction of the apprenticeship levy last year was a crucial step in encouraging employers to take the issue of training seriously, yet the funding is being under-utilised. Despite well-publicised teething issues around the approval of some apprenticeship standards, organisations are still able to invest in transferable higher-level skills, like digital skills, that can make them more competitive and agile.

It is not only the business world that is affected by technology. The Internet and developments in digital technology have also changed the way this training can be delivered – addressing fears that employees will spend too much time away from the workplace. With technology-enabled learning and apprenticeships, there is newfound flexibility that allows training to fit around other commitments. Continuous learning can now become part of an organisation without significantly disrupting it.

The apprenticeship levy can be a catalyst for the UK to reduce its skills deficit, but organisations need to truly embrace the idea of continuous learning and realise the benefits of building digital skills. If leaders have the vision and bravery to do so, they will see a bigger return on investment and boost to the bottom line than many may realise.

With technology and innovation gathering pace around the globe, it is crucial that we don’t end up playing catch up with digital developments, but rather take an active role in shaping their future.

David Willett is Corporate Director at The Open University

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