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Crossing the chasm: How UK businesses can bridge the digital skills gap

education, VR
(Image credit: Image Credit: Billetto Editorial / Unsplash)

Society is becoming increasingly digital with every day that passes. In January 2020, the UK had 65 million internet users, 45 million social media users and 72 million mobile connections. These figures precede the moment when the pandemic hit British shores and forced even more of us online.

UK businesses and organizations have reacted appropriately. In today’s world, news is increasingly being consumed online, GP appointments often take place virtually and, particularly over the last year, shopping occurs at the click of a button. Owing to this, businesses are increasingly demanding digital skills from their employees. And yet, despite the clear digital direction the UK is heading in, the country is on the verge of a digital skills shortage. 

The impact of this could be catastrophic for UK businesses and the economy as a whole. It could stunt the growth of businesses and the speed of their digital transformation, while leading to higher levels of unemployment. The question businesses must answer is: how can we bridge the increasingly chasmic digital skills gap that is emerging?

Taking responsibility for your employees 

Employers cannot take full responsibility for the impending digital skills shortage in the UK. The education system also has a role to play and, concerningly, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped by 40 percent since 2015. With demand for digital skills only growing, this number should be rising by 40 percent, not dropping. Undoubtedly, more needs to be done at an educational level to encourage young people to learn digital skills. 

However, there is certainly more that employers can do. While less than half of British employers think that young people are leaving full-time education with the appropriate digital skills, only half of employers are able to provide the necessary training to remedy this. With 70 percent of young people expecting employers to provide digital training, the desire to learn is there. It’s the solutions that are lacking. 

The reasons for this are likely multiple. It might come down to the cost of providing training, trepidation over its effectiveness and concerns that training might take time away from ‘real’, results-driven work. However, these fears are ultimately connected to an old way of training which, frankly, has become outdated very quickly for a multitude of reasons. Just as businesses have adapted to a new way of working, they must similarly change the way they see and provide training for their employees. 

A new way of learning for a new way of working 

Before the pandemic, when the majority of employees worked in an office, training would often take a physical form. Employers might invite a specialist into the office or have someone from within the team provide a training session. Anyone who has experienced this will know that these training sessions can take anything from half an hour to multiple days for full courses and there’s rarely a guarantee that it will be helpful or even relevant to everyone in the room. Understandably, employers are always going to be wary of taking time out of their staff’s day or week for something which might or might not be productive. 

The pandemic and, for many, a resulting shift to working from home has changed the way people learn. Employees can no longer group together in one room to receive a training session. The response from many businesses has been to either run the same training sessions as before, but virtually, or to put training on the backburner until offices reopen again. In truth, both of these solutions will only serve to intensify the digital skills shortage we are seeing. 

The third solution is to trial a new way of learning, which is more personalized and hands-on. In the past few years, online learning has become far more sophisticated than ever before. Using the appropriate platforms, businesses can empower their employees to learn in the flow of work. This means connecting personal skill shortages, exposed by individual tasks, with direct learning solutions. For example, if an employee has been tasked with re-programming a technological system, instead of having multiple people take part in a one-hour training session, that individual employee can take responsibility for their own learning. Advanced learning platforms will enable the employee to search for tailored training for the specific problem they are facing before applying what they have learned to the task itself. That is how businesses turn training into a productivity tool.

This new way of learning can be applied to something as complicated as programming or a task as simple as creating a Zoom meeting. While many of us will have been working from home for over a year now, our proficiency on day-to-day platforms such as Zoom, Teams and Microsoft Office is likely very basic. Therefore, if businesses want to make work-from-home more permanent and increase productivity, their employees must be skilled at using the appropriate platforms. With 70 percent of young people keen to receive training from their employers, it’s clear that the desire to learn and improve is there. Employers must take advantage of this and provide their staff with the appropriate tools to make those improvements. 

The widening digital skills gap is not just a business problem, but also an economic and educational problem. However, companies do not have time to sit back and wait for the next generation of employees to emerge with the necessary skills. Firstly, there is no guarantee as to when this will happen and, secondly, the skills that businesses need are constantly evolving all the time. Therefore, it’s crucial that organizations are proactive in how they upskill their workforce. Employees need personalized training, which allows them to learn in the flow of work and apply that training to real tasks straight away. This will enable businesses to train their employees, providing them with the skills they require, and to do so in a way which allows them to be productive at the same time. The learning platforms which enable this type of training exist now. If businesses want to grow and continue their digital transformation, the time to start using them is now.

Alexia Pedersen, EMEA Vice-President, O’Reilly (opens in new tab)

Alexia leads the International team at O’Reilly and has a passion and interest in learning for the enterprise and brings extensive knowledge of working with large organisations