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How closing the gap will keep our country safe

A police watchdog recently stated that the UK’s police force is feeling the strain of the country’s digital skills gap. Police stations are straining under the pressure of sifting through the increasing amount of digital evidence they are presented with.

If you think about it, we do the majority of our activities on either a smartphone, tablet, computer or even a wearable or smart home device, so it makes sense that criminals do too. This presents a problem for our police force. They now find themselves dealing with increasingly plugged-in criminals.

On the one hand, this could prove a blessing to some police officers – anyone who watched the Channel 4 show Hunters will be aware of just how easy it is to track someone down if they keep carrying their mobile, use any credit or debit card or venture into any city centre. But the watchdog has highlighted that many police officers don’t feel able to make heads or tails of the data that they are presented with.

The opportunity to use data effectively to combat crime, is passing the police force by. The gaps in digital and data skills blighting the UK’s police force only goes to highlight how large the skills gap has become in the country. As technology increasingly takes over most of our daily lives, every industry from tech to marketing and now security is buckling under the pressure. The people tasked with keeping the public safe are now reporting that they are ill-equipped to do their jobs because they don’t have the necessary skills. This is a serious problem. 

The skills gap the police are currently experiencing will only get worse with the passing of the Investigatory Powers (IP) Bill. The Bill in its current form allows security services to collect and analyse bulk communications data. If our police force cannot deal with the amount of data they have to analyse now, how can we expect them to cope with the mountain of data the IP Bill will bring?

Given our current situation, you cannot help but wonder where the fault for our digital skills gap lies, and who should be leading the way in addressing it. There is increasing pressure on schools to place more emphasis on computer science lessons to help equip the next generation with the skills they will need to work in an almost entirely technological world. Indeed, for many students, working with technology is practically innate. Many have never known a world without computers, some will never know life without Facebook and, almost comically, some do not understand how to work a landline. However, as gaming businessman Ian Livingstone once said, “We’re teaching too many kids in schools how to use applications, not to build them.”

The Government has recognised this, and in September 2014, did make computer programming part of the national curriculum. That said, teachers are also suffering from the digital skills gap, with the British Computing Society reporting that ICT teachers did not feel confident teaching computer science in schools. A Government report has also shown that only 35 per cent of ICT teachers hold a relevant qualification. At the same time, in 2015 the Government made plans to scrap ICT GCSE and replace it with computer science.

While this may seem a step in the right direction, a recent report by CREST has shown this to be a mistake. ICT has three times more applicants than computer science, with a more balanced ratio of boys to girls taking the subject up. Trying to equip our schools with the right curriculum, knowledge and equipment needed to prepare students for the future, doesn’t do much to address our current skills gap. Between 2013 and 2017 we will need an additional 745,000 workers with digital skills. 93 per cent of tech companies state that the digital skills gap is now affecting commercial operations. There is clearly a need for the existing workforce to be tooled up with more digital skills, and creating Knowledge Transfer Partnerships with academic institutions can also help plug the current gap.

There have also been calls for the Government to make digital skills a core component of all apprenticeships. Given the vocational nature of these qualifications, plus the Government’s current drive to increase apprenticeship uptake, this could go some way in solving the skills problem. What has become clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the digital skills gap. The gap is endemic across all industries and workforces, and it will take every industry to step up and solve the problem. There is some responsibility on our schools and universities to tackle the skills gap at an academic level, but that will not help our current situation.

Businesses also need to recognise the role they can play in finding a solution to the skills crisis; both in ensuring their current workforce get the training needed to understand our digital and data driven world, and also taking part in partnerships with academic institutions to equip the future workforce. The skills gap needs to be tackled head on, by everyone, now. It’ll be a crime not to.

Guy Marson, Managing Director Profusion

Image source: Shutterstock/Duncan Andison

Guy Marson, Managing Director of data science and intelligence marketing company Profusion discusses how tech companies can explain complicated concepts like artificial intelligence to the public.