The UK’s digital skills gap is well-documented and remains an extremely pertinent challenge for businesses across the country. It’s an issue affecting not only technology companies but organisations of all sizes and sectors. Their requirements for staff with appropriate, up-to-date digital skills are, in many instances, not being met within the current talent pool.
A 2021 report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) revealed that 48% of UK businesses were recruiting for roles that required data skills, but that 46% of those have struggled to find appropriately skilled candidates.
Unfortunately, this is a common story – one that has come to a head this year, with various factors accentuating an already difficult situation. The Covid-19 pandemic, for one, has resulted in a significant rise in demand for digital products and services. Traditional business processes – such as collaboration between employees or the delivery of an internal project – have rapidly evolved from being based largely upon in-person interactions to instead taking place in a digital landscape.
The pandemic has also resulted in another important trend: ‘The Great Resignation’. In short, many employees have taken stock of their priorities over the tumultuous past two years, with a large number choosing to pursue new career paths. The recent Harvey Nash Group Digital Leadership study found that around 80% of the digital leaders surveyed consider employee retention to now be even more complicated due to changing post-pandemic priorities among their staff.
We find ourselves, then, at a crossroads. And it is vital that we consider how the digital skills gap can be addressed.
This is a conversation that must include employers and employees, public and private sectors, and individuals across the professional spectrum. To that end, West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) is delighted to have partnered with UK Tech News to produce a monthly Digital Skills Clinic. The articles will explore the latest trends relating to digital skills and, more importantly, put forward ideas and solutions from stakeholders involved in making progress in this space – including insights from employers, employees, public sector bodies, and those providing digital skills training.
In this inaugural Digital Skills Clinic, I am going to outline the valuable role that regional digital skills bootcamps can play in tackling the talent shortage.
What is a digital skills bootcamp?
Some readers may have heard of digital skills bootcamps; many won’t have. But they are an integral part of how the UK government – and local combined authorities such as WMCA – are making notable strides forward in improving digital skills.
These are free, flexible courses for adults aged 19 and over who are either in work or recently unemployed. The bootcamps, which typically last for anything between 12 and 16 weeks, give people the opportunity to build sector-specific skills. Moreover, by including local businesses within the bootcamps, interview opportunities are often built into the programmes, ensuring a clear outcome for participants.
With a £7m grant, WMCA has piloted over 30 digital bootcamps and trained around 2,000 adults with essential tech skills. As reported by UKTN in early November, we recently unveiled our next round of bootcamps; £21m has been made available from the Adult Education Budget to fund the new bootcamps over the next three years, with a target of supporting more than 4,000 people.
The bootcamps will cover data analytics and data engineering, web development, coding, UI and UX design, cloud computing, digital marketing and cybersecurity, and more. They are organised by WMCA, but the delivery of the actual training is managed by individual specialist firms, each with expertise in a particular digital field.
The importance of partnerships
Fundamentally, providing adults across the UK with free access to digital skills training is a crucial step forward in resolving the tech talent shortage. Further, the bootcamps underline the importance of partnerships in working towards a solution.
As outlined above, WMCA’s digital bootcamps combine public sector oversight and funding with industry-led training. This is vital – it ensures the courses equip participants with the most relevant, up-to-date skills in a particular field.
More than that, the involvement of business leaders is essential to the success of the bootcamps, which holds great relevance no doubt to many readers. By working with bootcamp providers, an SME can achieve two things: they can upskill current employees by enrolling them in a course, or they can offer interview opportunities to the participants, allowing them access to recently trained prospective employees.
Last month, the UK’s universities and colleges appealed for help in equipping young people with digital skills, admitting they lack the resources, knowledge and infrastructure to tackle the UK-wide tech talent shortage on their own. Clearly, we must avoid seeing the digital skills gap as an educational issue, but rather one that will require input from businesses, educators and public bodies alike.
Digital skills bootcamps have a key role to play. I would encourage employers to explore what digital skills partnerships exist in their region and, where possible, to engage with the bootcamps as a very focused, practical means of improving digital skills training.
Julie Nugent is the director of productivity and skills at West Midlands Combined Authority. Established in 2016, WMCA is a group of 18 local councils and three local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) working together to make the West Midlands region a better place to live and work.
The West Midlands Digital Skills Partnership brings together the region’s leading tech employers, digital entrepreneurs, LEPs the Department of Culture Media and Sport, as well as universities, colleges and other training providers. Their aim is to identify what digital skills provision is needed across the West Midlands and encourage partners to work together to address these and emerging needs, and to attract and retain investment and talent in the region.