Millennials aren’t the answer for the Digital Skills Gap in the UK

The skills gap is apparently costing our economy £63bn a year in lost GDP, but rushing to plug it could cause more harm than good.

Although the UK remains a global tech leader, the country remains in the grip of a digital skills crisis which is holding back productivity and costs around £63 billion each year, according to a report published today by the Commons Science and Technology Committee.

The report claims that 12.6 million UK adults lack even basic digital skills, and nearly half of these people (5.8 million) have never even used the internet. Meanwhile, a coincidental report published by Cisco claims that those organisations who apparently assume they can close the gap by merely employing so-called Millennials, will be disappointed because there’s no great correlation between age and confidence in using digital technology. The Digital Culture Clash report found the only meaningful correlations were between the type of work an individual does, their level of employment and their competence and confidence in using technology.

The Commons report found that:

  • 22 percent of IT equipment in schools is ineffective
  • Just 35 percent of computer science teachers had a relevant qualification
  • Only 70 percent of the required number of computer science teachers have been recruited
  • The UK needs another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017
  • 90 percent of jobs require digital skills to some degree
  • Skills gap costs economy around £63bn a year in lost income

The bottom line is that the UK apparently needs another 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017… or else. But it is worth putting this in perspective a little. The nation’s hardly in grave trouble on the digital front. Last year, the UK was said to have the largest internet economy in the world as a percentage of GDP, worth over £100bn a year, according to Google. And EY’s ‘attractiveness survey’ had investors still very much enamoured with the capital; London was named the second most likely city in the world to create the next big tech giant (after San Francisco, naturally).

This isn’t to dismiss the suggestions made by the report. It will be hard to rest on our digital laurels if there’s nobody to code them for us, after all. Universities providing coding conversion courses to help graduates from non-computer science backgrounds enter the tech sector could be a hugely helpful step at widening opportunities. Similarly, a review of the qualifying requirements for ‘shortage occupation’ IT jobs under Tier 2 visas is much overdue. It could lift a weight off the shoulders of small businesses, providing easier access to critical digital skills from abroad.

But repeatedly sounding the alarm over a ‘digital skills crisis’ puts us at risk of panicking and reacting rashly, rather than focusing on longer-term efforts to improve digital education. For businesses feeling under-equipped, the temptation could be to rush in and hire expertise to plug the gap – often at a premium, without entirely planning out how they’ll fit into the company.

The core problem is that many of those with the necessary skills are unable or unwilling to work in the field. Unemployment in senior IT staff still willing to work in IT is running at over 50% and large numbers have turned their back on it preferring to change careers to something more lucrative and less stressful.