Reform Scotland

Closing the digital skills gap: time for action – Simon Holden

Those of us of a certain age will remember that moment when we first saw a computer in our classroom. Chances are, it was a BBC Micro or an Acorn Electron, perhaps wheeled in on a trolley so that it could be shared with other classes.

Technology has moved on apace. Digital whiteboards have replaced overhead acetate projectors and chalkboards, while pupils are now adept at using iPads and other tablets.

Yet being familiar with the technology and competent in its use is only part of the story. If we want the pupils leaving Scotland’s schools to help grow our economy then they need wider digital skills that extend beyond simple coding and computations.

That’s why AND Digital has launched our Digital Skills Forum (DSF) to bring together the public, private, and third sectors from throughout the UK to tackle the digital skills gap. It’s time to turn words into actions and to turn ambition into impact.

The quarterly forum met for the first time at the end of last month [November] in Birmingham, where more than 100 people gathered to begin driving change. This is not simply a working group but instead it’s a larger group of leaders, who have a genuine interest in this topic.

The opportunities lying in front of us are immense. The Logan Report, published in 2020, made recommendations about how Scotland can become a global frontrunner in technology, yet the report also shone a light on the urgent need to digitise our economy.

A year later, [2021] a CBI Scotland study found that the adoption of new technologies – together with the skills to use them – could add £25 billion to the Scottish economy over ten years.

AND Digital’s nation-wide report in 2022 showed that the UK will need eight million people over the next three years to close the digital skills gap. Additionally, the report found that nearly a quarter (22%) of workers do not receive digital upskilling from their employer. Although the equivalent figure for Scotland is lower at 18%, there remains a need to increase understanding of why businesses should focus on upskilling and how to access such training.

I believe the DSF will be transformational in harnessing these opportunities to grow our economy through digitisation. The time for talking about the challenges is over – the time to start addressing them has arrived.

Part of the challenge is defining what we mean by “digital skills”. The forum’s key goals in the year ahead [2024] will be to reach an agreement on how we define digital skills, on what is required to rapidly expand widespread digital talent, and on a realistic timescale for achieving results.

The forum’s discussions are still at an early stage, but already there are some exciting ideas that are beginning to emerge. We’re exploring the possibility of launching an industry-led clinic covering the digital skills challenges facing businesses, which would offer a safe and supportive environment run along “Chatham House” rules, giving companies the chance to ask questions and explore opportunities for collaboration while maintaining confidentiality.

Collaboration with educators will also be key. That’s why the DSF will be inviting a broad range of representatives from further and higher education to join the forum, allowing business leaders to form connections with the vocational and theoretical training providers that will help to shape the digital skills we need to fill the gap.

Inclusion goes hand-in-hand with collaboration. Closing the skills gap will involve bringing people into our industry from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, and then retaining them by giving them the support and training that they need to thrive.

The forum will also be a useful channel through which to disseminate information to businesses about government initiatives from the Digital Skills Council, which was launched last year [2022] by the UK Government and which is chaired jointly by digital economy minister Saqib Bhatti and Phil Smith, chairman of semiconductor firm IQE, with secretariat support provided by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

That flow of information will go both ways. Not only will businesses be able to find out about government initiatives and take advantage of the best ones, they’ll also be able to provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t work.

Just as importantly, companies can use the forum to feed information and ideas to the government too. The DSF will give policymakers access to white papers and other pieces of thought leadership from the players that are dealing with digital skills day-in, day-out.

Looking further ahead, I believe the forum will have a key role to play in setting ambitious targets for workforce digital literacy. International research shows current digital literacy in the UK lagging behind virtually all European countries: the UK ranks 28th in Europe when it comes to the “front-end economy”, such as adopting enterprise risk management systems.

The UK lies 17% behind other G7 countries in terms of productivity; most of these rivals have adopted digital technologies to advance their production processes. Targets to get on a level playing field would be a first step in the right direction, acknowledging the significant gap that currently exists – closing this gap over the course of a decade could be a reasonable aim.

We also need to encourage more partnerships between companies in our tech sector and education providers, such as schools and colleges. AND Digital and many of our peers are already firm believers in the value of both work experience and more formal apprenticeships.

However, over the past two decades, politicians have promoted a career path that leads from school to university as the most desirable option for our young people. We believe this needs to change so that apprenticeships and work experience opportunities are valued as an equally attractive route, and not as some form of lesser option.

As the DSF gears up for its next meeting in the new year, [2024] it’s time to start putting words into action. Bringing together the public, private, and third sectors will help to close the digital skills gap and ignite Scotland’s economic growth.

Simon Holden is AND Digital’s Hub Executive for Scotland and Yorkshire.