Today (22 March) we highlighted a concerning gap in digital skills provision as we published new research into the UK’s digital skills market ‘Disconnected: Exploring the digital skills gap’, with the Learning & Work Institute and Enginuity.

The research shows that 60 percent of businesses believe that their reliance on advanced digital skills is set to increase over the next five years, while 88 percent of young people realise that their digital skills will be essential for their careers.

However, while employer demand for digital skills is set to continue to grow, participation in digital skills training has declined. The number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has fallen by 40% since 2015, with the number taking A Levels, further education courses and apprenticeships all declining.

Further, under half of UK employers (48%) believe that young people are leaving full-time education with sufficient advanced digital skills and 76% of businesses believe that a lack of digital skills would hit their profitability.

Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann OBE, Chief Executive, WorldSkills UK said: “Young people and businesses are at one, recognising the growing importance of the digital economy. But assumptions that the current digital skills gap will be closed in the months and years to come are misplaced.

“As business demand for advanced digital skills is growing, fewer young people are applying to study the subject which could, if allowed to go unchecked, lead to a significant shortfall in provision.

“We need to plug shortages by inspiring more young women as well as young men to understand that digital careers are for them, and we also need to ensure the skills they are developing are of the highest quality to meet employer and economic needs. This is crucial for attracting much-needed foreign inward investment to create jobs across the UK and help the economy grow. Other major global economies are ahead of the UK in valuing high quality digital skills to help drive their competitiveness and productivity, we need to act now to ensure the UK is not left behind.”

The report also found there is a need to level-up demand for and supply of digital skills by ensuring investment in digital is prioritised in local economic development.

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Stephen Evans, Chief Executive, Learning and Work Institute, said: “Our research shows that demand for basic digital skills is already nearly universal, and demand for more advanced digital skills will continue to increase. Helping young people develop the digital skills that employers need will be vital both to driving our economic competitiveness, and to ensuring young people can succeed in the labour market of the future.

“Yet while demand has increased, the number of people taking IT courses across GCSE, A Level, further education and apprenticeships has declined in recent years.

“We need to see a step-change in ambition on digital skills, with government, employers, providers and local areas working together to deliver the digital skills we will need.”

The fundamental findings show that as 60 per cent of all job losses during the pandemic have been among 16- to 24-year-olds, supporting young people in the development of digital skills is even more vital now than ever.

There is a growing digital divide across the country – with London having both the highest levels of demand for and supply of digital skills. Compared to other regions and nations of the UK, the capital has the highest proportion of employers who require advanced digital skills, and the highest number of apprenticeship starts in ICT. Given the growing importance of digital tech and digital skills, the report warns that this imbalance could exacerbate regional inequalities.

There is also a stark gender gap in digital skills, with young females under-represented at every level. Females account for just 22% of GCSE entrants in IT subjects, 17% of A Level entrants, 23% of apprenticeship starts in ICT, and 16% of undergraduate starts in computer science.

Following this research, we have committed to:

• Showing more young women and men that digital careers are for them

• Embedding digital skills in our development programmes across all parts of the UK

• Championing the development of excellence in advanced digital skills through international benchmarking to support economic recovery with our partners in government, education and industry.

Engineering ‘sector connector’ Enginuity, which partnered the research, is calling for sweeping changes to stave off digital deprivation and the impending skills gap.

Lucy Thompson, Chief People & Transformation Officer, Enginuity, said: “As the sector connector across Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing, we will continue to support the employers we serve to close their digital skills gaps and challenges within their workforce strategies.

“Our work as trusted skills experts enable us to be a voice with policymakers, industry, educators and most importantly learners.”

The areas of focus which Enginuity will seek to improve as part of the work we do to build a better working world and enable young people to find meaningful work and careers are:

• Diversity within digital careers – expanding the work we do to include digital careers as well as Engineering and Manufacturing careers.

• Building links between providers and Industry – being that conduit that can take the ‘wants and needs’ from Industry and turn them into learning programmes and opportunities for providers.

• Embed digital across all provision – thinking ‘digital-first’ as we develop future learning frameworks and ensuring that digital skills are built at each stage of lifelong learning. Developing technology products that enhance learning at all ages through the acquisition of digital skills.

• As an employer voice – use our collective influence to ensure engineering work-based qualifications, as they are developed, contain core components requiring the development, assessment and certification of digital skills.

• National Manufacturing Skills Task Force – bringing together the best thinking from across the various sectors we serve to explore how we can ensure that the digital skills requirements of employers are matched with the skills development opportunities that are available in the marketplace.

Read the full report
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