Employers urge ministers to address lack of digital skills

The UK’s biggest tech companies have called on the government to take immediate action to address a shortage in digital skills holding back the post-pandemic economic recovery.

Employers including Microsoft, Google and software company Salesforce on Tuesday urged ministers to work more closely with industry to address the lack of digital skills, which is costing the UK economy billions of pounds. The calls came in a report by TechUK, a trade body that represents hundreds of UK and multinational tech groups.

The calls come at a critical juncture for the UK skills sector, with the government promising to boost productivity and participation in further education as it rebuilds the post-Covid economy.

Technation, a platform for employers, estimated in 2020 that there would be 100,000 unfilled vacancies each month in the tech sector by this summer. The Employer Skills Survey predicted that 30 per cent of skills shortage vacancies were as a result of poor digital skills.

NESTA, a think-tank, found data-driven skills shortages cost the UK economy £2bn annually.

The tech groups said the government’s “Skills for Jobs” blueprint to support training for over-16s, published in January, showed it understood the danger of skills shortages, but it must go further to encourage people to take it up.

“If we don’t seize this opportunity to retrain those hit hardest [by the pandemic], we risk locking them out of good work now — and in the future,” Clare Barclay, chief executive UK at Microsoft and a member of TechUK task force, said.

“There are huge opportunities available in digital, but people need the skills to access them,” she added.

Many of the report’s recommendations echo plans detailed in the government’s January white paper for skills.

The report, Fast Forward for Digital Jobs, backs proposals to introduce a entitlement to take out a loan to fund the equivalent of four years of further study after the age of 18, and to give employers more say in setting the content of vocational qualifications.

Adam Spearing, Emea field chief technical officer at Salesforce, said there was an “opportunity to go further”.

The report recommends establishing a digital skills tax credit, potentially modelled on existing relief for investment in research and development, that would incentivise SMEs to invest in training their workforce.

It also requests more flexibility for employers to distribute funds from the apprenticeship levy — a tax to fund training — to smaller organisations. Loan entitlement, it adds, should be available not just for courses in colleges and universities but to a wide range of industry-certified providers.

TechUK also urged the government to create a “digital skills toolkit”, an online portal to assess people’s existing skills and signpost training opportunities to address a lack of information.

“The challenge for employers and employees is knowing, what skills do I get,” Spearing said. “This allows people to decide.”

The Department for Education said its current offer included giving adults with low digital skills access to free training, targeted support for jobseekers and access to free digital courses.

“We’re transforming technical education so that everyone has the opportunity to get the skills they need to succeed, and putting employers at the heart of plans, so that businesses have access to the highly skilled workforce they need to thrive,” Gillian Keegan, minister for apprenticeships and skills, said.

Fiona Aldridge, policy director of the Learning and Work Institute, a think-tank, said it was encouraging that major names were engaging with the need for digital skills.

However, she said it may be a “mistake” to bring in too many specific initiatives around particular skills, and said that more needed to be done to ensure that existing resources were utilised and that there were clear progression pathways. 

“Those with fewer qualifications and in ‘low skilled’ roles were most likely to have lost their jobs,” she said. “Supporting them to retrain and move around the economy will require support to develop digital skills (and confidence) from a low level.”


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