May's modern strategy: We need digital skills now, not tomorrow

Depending on who you ask, Theresa May’s announcement of a new Modern Industrial Strategy last week was a bold commitment to the UK’s technology-economy, a future proof-plan for post-Brexit Britain or a substanceless cop-out. 

Nevertheless, the £4.7bn announcement made waves for good reason; it’s the biggest increase in research and development investment seen by a government since 1979, and a proclamation of where May wants to take technology in the UK.

The need for a revitalisation of the UK’s digital abilities, and investment in future technologies is indisputable. In June of last year the Science and Technology Committee published a report with a stark warning to the UK government: modernise the workforce or get left behind. Within the report were sobering statistics on the state of the UK’s digital skills; 12.6 million adults lack basic knowledge, 5.8 million people have never used the internet and only 35 per cent of those teaching tech-based subjects have the relevant experience or qualifications for the job.

Compounded by the fact that rising automation and the growth of artificial intelligence has recently been predicted to cost the world’s leading economies 5.1 million jobs over the next five years, the challenge facing the UK has come sharply into focus. As such, the plan for a new Modern Industrial Strategy came as a relief to many, a facing up to the challenges of what some have coined ‘the fourth industrial revolution’. 

While May’s plan may be the beginning of a future for the UK’s technological industry, it is not necessarily going to tackle the problems of today. In fact, May’s plans neglect the present-day workforce, who are underskilled digitally - despite perhaps being highly educated in a traditional sense. In fact, so large is the shortage that 93 per cent of tech companies believe it is affecting their business, with 66 per cent of data-based IT companies noting a specific instance of a role remaining unfilled due to lack of qualified applicants in the past 12 months.

The next generation

The Prime Minister’s approach has focused on the next generation of workers. Her plan has been broken neatly into ‘ten pillars’, the second of which is titled ‘Developing Skills’. This pillar details how the government suggest they will be ‘ensuring everyone has the basic skills needed in a modern economy [by] building a new system of technical education to benefit the half of young people who not go to university.’ 

A commitment to the younger generation is right, and needed, for the UK to remain competitive in the digital space and it is a growing concern in the public consciousness. Indeed, OpenClassrooms’ own research found that today nearly half of the UK’s parents believe coding is a more valuable skill than a foreign language. A third even consider it more important than studying English Literature. 

However, the upskilling of the UK’s workforce must not disregard those already in work. Without a clear plan to increase digital skills among those already facing the challenges of the digital revolution, May risk neglecting generations. This is not only true of older people who have worked both before and after the widespread introduction of personal computers, email and the internet, but even current graduates. 

The ‘millennial’ generation, despite a lifetime of using computers, have not received the practical guidance to make their familiarity with technology work-ready. As such, even they risk becoming a squeezed generation, between eras of wealth and those of May’s future who are trained in vocation. This is not just theory; a third of new UK graduates end up in low-skilled jobs with an average debt of £50,000. Furthermore, despite ongoing growth in the technology industry, and the fact that many businesses are struggling to fill roles, computer graduates remain the most highly unemployed of any subject in the UK. As such, the disconnect between traditional university and the skills required to work in tech is clear.

A twofold challenge

The challenge for May’s plan, though, is twofold. Not only does it neglect the millions of people currently in employment, it fails to account for the speed of digital advancement. Spending 12 - 16 years in education in the early stages of your life is a form of frontloading skills that can no longer adequately train workers for forty-plus years of work. Ongoing training, or the ‘topping-up’ of skills needs to become the norm for those already in work, at present this is severely lacking across all sectors.

Employers, employees and governments must work together with skills providers to set new standards for training. The future does not mean the death of the traditional university, nor the traditional school system. There will always be a role for the education, social experience and research they provide. However, new forms of learning can fill the new space alongside these traditional institutions. The ubiquity of high speed internet, the falling cost of hardware with strong connectivity and portability can help lead the charge on this. 

At OpenClassrooms we use technology to augment learning and to ensure everyone has access to skills development. 1:1 video calls between mentors and students provide a background in industry and support with real-life practical projects that means students aren't just presented information. They have to engage, understand and practice what they've learnt in order to progress. 

As our three million plus monthly learners can testify, effective online education is about combining engaging technology with proven approaches to learning. Simple tick-box exercises do not motivate learners and could never rigorously test skills development, and that has long been the question mark for employers. But when students are nurtured on a 1:1 basis by mentors we see a course course completion rate of nearly 90 per cent - compared with other popular courses in the industry - ranging between just 3 and 45 per cent.

Upskilling the UK

The final pillar of May’s Modern Industrial Strategy suggests a commitment to ‘Creating the right institutions to bring together sectors and places’. The section goes on to suggest they could create or strengthen areas ‘be they local civic or educational institutions, trade associations or financial networks.’ This is the key to creating a meaningful difference to those currently in work. 

The nature of technology means skills are constantly evolving, which is why it is vital that the government and learning providers work hand in hand with employers to meet their skills needs today and in the future.

Together they can work to create an upskilling of the UK that works for all. The budget is there, the issues are crying out to be addressed - but unless May can commit to this shift in the structural tradition of our education and training systems her policy will leave generations behind and the UK’s IT sector in a vulnerable place.

Pierre Dubuc, CEO and co-founder, OpenClassrooms
Image source: Shutterstock/Trueffelpix