The challenge the UK faces in closing the digital skills gap has been laid bare in a new study which shows nearly half of the country’s adult workforce – 17.1m people – do not have the essential digital skills for work.
The so-called “hidden middle” are not only a major risk to UK businesses, they threaten the wider economy too, according to the study by FutureDotNow, a coalition of leading organisations focused on accelerating the UK’s workplace digital skills at scale.
While many businesses recognise the social challenge of digital exclusion and advanced digital skills opportunities, the digital skills of millions in this hidden middle, essential for business productivity and commercial success, has been overlooked.
The report reveals that fewer than a quarter (23%) of all employees report having had any digital skills training from employers. In fact, according to IMD World Digital Competitiveness 2020 data, the UK is ranked 41st in the world for employee training.
FutureDotNow says the scale of this upskilling challenge is significant, particularly in sectors vital to the UK such as retail, services, manufacturing, construction and the public sector, but so is the opportunity.
In response the organisation has launched its Playbook, to help businesses to rapidly move forward in identifying the essential digital skills they are lacking and upskilling their people.
The Playbook is free to FutureDotNow members, which include Accenture, Asda, BT, Good Things Foundation, Lloyds Banking Group, M&S, Nationwide Building Society, Nominet, PwC among others. It combines experience, techniques and top tips from coalition members who have recognised that they must address the hidden middle.
The report articulates the commercial risks presented by this hidden middle, including negative impacts on business productivity and financial performance by slowing the adoption of digital processes, holding back businesses and reducing the UK’s global competitiveness.
Too many businesses assume their employees have the essential digital skills for work because they can, for example, use smartphones. But most UK organisations are failing to address the need to equip the whole workforce with the basic workplace digital skills, such as accessing payslips, booking shifts and leave, avoiding social-media disasters, basic password practice, using cloud storage, analysing data, synchronising information across multiple devices and keeping viruses out of systems by identifying suspicious emails.
FutureDotNow has been focused on the UK’s workplace digital skills crisis since 2019 after its founder and chair, Sir Peter Estlin, Lord Mayor of London from 2018 to 2019, recognised that the desired pace of workplace digitisation is unmatched by basic digital skills.
Much attention has rightly been paid to social issues around digital exclusion, but little attention has been paid to the dearth of workplace essential digital skills.
FutureDotNow chief executive Liz Williams said: “This report reveals a hidden middle between digital exclusion and advanced digital skills which needs addressing urgently: there’s a significant part of our workforce without the essential digital skills required for the new global digital world we’re competing in. Great businesses are underpowered like smartphones with a flat battery because their workforces lack these essential digital skills.
“FutureDotNow and its members, who are already seeing the power of working together to upskill their employees, will be able to help them take action. And our Playbook, launched today is a practical guide to identifying missing essential digital skills and how to go about upskilling employees.”
TechUK president Jacqueline de Rojas added: “Throughout the pandemic, we have seen an increase in people wanting and needing to acquire essential digital skills. This has created positive momentum in driving the UK’s digital adoption which we must maintain in order to address the growing mismatch in the demand and supply of digital skills in the UK. FutureDotNow’s initiative to encourage business leaders to share knowledge and skills is critical to ensure the country and our citizens are ready for what comes next.”
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