How the UK Digital Strategy can create a culture of career-long learning

The future success of the UK digital economy could hinge on two policy decisions outlined by the Government just before they called a General Election. The first is the Digital Strategy which aims to make the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business. The second was a commitment snuck into the Chancellor’s Budget for £40 million towards piloting lifelong learning programmes. Provided the Conservatives are returned to power, these announcements could prove to be very important.   

The publication of the Digital Strategy was long awaited, and lent heavily on training as its goal of making the country more competitive. Four million free digital skills training courses will be offered to individuals, SMEs and charities over the lifetime of the Strategy. Encouraging people and businesses to have capable digital skills is crucial to the country’s next phase of growth as a leading digital economy.   

The Tinder Foundation found that 90 per cent of all new jobs require digital skills, with almost three-quarters of employers stating that they would not even interview a candidate who did not possess basic computer skills. Yet currently 10 per cent of the nation has never used the Internet.  Digital inclusion must be a priority to ensure no one is left behind. Leeds City Council’s campaign “100% Digital Leeds” is paving the way, launching a new initiative to equip thousands of digitally excluded residents with basic online skills.   

There are also changes in demographics to consider. Life expectancy has risen and people are working longer than previous generations. The job for life is also over. We cannot predict the series of careers we will have in our lifetimes, let alone those kids just coming through schools who will do  jobs that haven’t even been created yet. Nor do we know how the advances in automation and machine learning will shape our career paths. Instead, to prepare as best we can, we should all develop a thirst for continuous and lifelong learning – the only way to ensure our skills adapt and don’t become obsolete.   

This is especially important as the UK is currently battling a productivity crisis. According to the ONS, the UK ranks 18 percentage points lower in terms of GDP per hour than the rest of the G7 group of countries. To help solve the skills and productivity gap, we need to dramatically shift our thinking towards on-demand, digital workplace training right now, as it could be years for the measures proposed in the Digital Strategy to deliver the desired results.   

This point is highlighted by the Barclays Digital Development Index which reports only 38% of UK workers are offered training in digital skills by their employers. We also fare poorly on workforce capability ranking seventh out of 10 countries when it comes to assessment of content-creation and coding skills. Further, over half of the UK’s digital community told Tech City that there is a shortage of highly skilled employees with nearly a quarter of companies describing sourcing talent as a ‘major challenge’. 

Solving the skills issue will be instrumental in addressing this productivity gap. The Government appears to recognise this fact, and I’m encouraged by Philip Hammond’s statement in the Budget pledging £40 million to explore the best approaches for continuous learning. However, this strategy needs to move quickly to delivery.   

Technology moves so fast that to stay relevant employees must have access to the latest developments on-demand.  The Government will likely realise pretty quickly that physical classrooms and one-to-one tuition cannot deliver its training ambitions at scale. The Internet has been a great leveller for education, and now it is democratising professional technology learning. Online courses accessible at any time of day allow far greater numbers of people to acquire the latest digital skills, whether that is in product design, network infrastructure or cyber security.   

Leading companies are already seeing digital skills as vital to helping them achieve their strategic goals. So often teams lack specific expertise and so outside specialists are brought in at great cost. Why not give your teams instant access to the learning they will need to deliver projects on time and on spec? Our experience shows that workplace learning is optimised when employees have their skill level assessed at the outset, and can then learn through online on-demand courses taught by industry experts. This ‘learning by doing’ is much more effective than classroom theory, especially when you can supplement it all with live video-mentoring to problem solve and overcome any learning challenges that crop up.   

The Government outlined many worthy ambitions in the Digital Strategy, not least the goal of increasing female representation. This final point is worth highlighting further. Tech City’s report shows just how heavily skewed the digital industries are towards males. Women are in the majority for only one in nine digital tech companies, and in over half of businesses, men outnumber women by at least three to one. This must be addressed urgently through meetups, mentoring, expansion of code schools to boost girls’ interest in IT, training on unconscious bias in recruitment processes, and giving women new opportunities to acquire digital skills. Plus, it’s been shown that greater female representation actually delivers on the bottom line. McKinsey has said that those companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 per cent more likely to outperform those in the bottom quartile. And if you replicate this for ethnic diversity too, the effects are greater at 35 per cent.   

We need to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue digital careers, but at the same time organisations of all sizes must realise the vital responsibility they have to upskill employees. Today’s tech talent shortage cannot be allowed to get any worse, and it will be fascinating to see how the implementation of the Digital Strategy and lifelong learning pilots unfold—but just remember it can’t all be left to the Government. Only by proactively embracing an environment of continuous learning will we create a future workforce that has the job security and relevant expertise for our post-Brexit digital economy. 

 Julian Wragg, VP EMEA & APAC, Pluralsight 

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