The UK can be a land of digital opportunity – if we address skills gaps now

By David Thorpe posted 24-01-2024 14:35


With more than forty billion-dollar tech companies - known as ‘unicorns’ - in the UK, we are an international leader in digital innovation, and aspire to be a global science and tech superpower. Across fintech, telecoms, AI, e-commerce and beyond, tech startups and scaleups are tackling the world’s most urgent challenges, from medicine to climate change. 

But across this sunny landscape are storm clouds casting dark shadows. The UK has major digital skills gaps and, without concerted action, these gaps will continue to grow.  

Digital skills & digital literacy 

Essential digital skills cover the ability to use digital devices, applications and networks to access, organise and analyse information. They apply to all aspects of life and work. A digitally literate person uses technology safely, responsibly and effectively.  

Specialised digital skills apply to specific roles and disciplines such as programming, data analysis, computer-aided design, machine learning and AI, app and web development. These skills are in high demand, inviting attractive working conditions and pay. Jobs calling for digital skills pay much more than those which do not – over £8,000 more per year – with this difference being even larger for high-skill jobs.  

Digital skills gaps 

In 2021 a third of the workforce lacked essential digital skills. When asked in 2022, four out of five UK respondents didn’t feel ready to operate in a digital world, and nearly as many didn’t feel equipped to learn the digital skills required by businesses.  

What impact does this have? The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) have explored engineering employer perspectives, finding that around half of those reporting a digital skills gap in the current workforce said it harms productivity. Around a third reported this gap restricts growth, harms innovation and reduces ability to deliver contracts. Such deficits will clearly have implications for the economy, and for individual progression and development.  

The future of digital skills  

The Unit for Future Skills, based within the Department for Education, suggest that digital skills are “critical to the future of most jobs” as we progress through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Looking ahead, over one third of employers consider it important that their engineers understand AI by 2027, with an even greater proportion saying the same of cloud computing, machine learning and data security capabilities.  

Skills gaps are hard to close 

Securing universal access to essential digital skills is crucial - and calls for an earlier investment in digital skills in education. In England, the relatively new computing curriculum is a foundation subject for all children aged 5- 16; taught well, computing can prepare all young people for their digital lives ahead. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have taken a proactive approach to digital skills too through curriculum reform.  

Technology has the potential to enhance the way in which teachers explain and model. Applications such as data handling in maths, and simulations in science, can improve learning and attainment in that subject while also boosting digital skills and confidence – a win-win.  

However, access to high quality curriculum experiences, and to the technology used to embed skills, is unevenly distributed. The advances in EdTech to support the wider curriculum have stalled, following a surge during the pandemic. At home, one in five young people from lower socioeconomic groups lack access to a laptop, desktop or tablet making them at risk of being left behind. 

Only around half of computing teaching in English state schools is by a teacher with a relevant post-A level qualification; for comparison, almost all teachers of Combined Science held specialist qualifications. Young women, lacking confidence that they will succeed in the subject, are also far less likely to take tech and computing qualifications.  

Supporting educators 

The National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE) confronts these challenges head on. It also provides subject knowledge enhancement, high quality teaching resources and much more to teachers in primary and secondary schools in England. NCCE support improves perceptions of computing, uptake of GCSE Computer Science, and student attainment. It has researched factors linked to the gender imbalance in computing, seeking to encourage more girls into further study in the subject where they tend to outperform boys. Its new ‘I Belong’ initiative is specifically geared to encouraging girls into computer education.  

The future of digital skills goes beyond computing, across STEM subjects and beyond. It is important, however, to remember the needs and accountability of teachers in these subjects. Schools and colleges need reassurance and encouragement to deploy proven digital teaching, prioritising the skills of their whole community. STEM Learning has a comprehensive suite of digital skills CPD courses which build teachers’ confidence and insight in teaching digital skills, and provide practical approaches and ideas to introduce in the classroom. 

The nation working together 

Young people must see the relevance and benefits of digital skills development for their present lives and their future careers. Here is a critical role for government, employers and other stakeholders in the digital economy. We cannot take for granted that young people have an interest in the tech that surrounds them - as much part of their landscape as trees and buses - but together we can provide the spark.  

While increased funding to address digital skills gaps is much needed, there are myriad ways to support this joint effort - organised at national, regional and local levels. Convening and channelling campaign and advocacy groups; collaboration and partnership working; and volunteers sharing knowledge, resources and practices from the modern workplace are a few ways in which organisations can contribute, no matter how large or small. Together we can seize the moment and secure the future. 

Useful links 


I Belong 

STEM Learning’s digital skills CPD 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of Science in Parliament 

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