It is nearing 12 months since West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) began its partnership with UKTN, providing regular articles – Digital Skills Clinics – addressing pertinent issues and trends within the digital skills gap.
The first piece I wrote for UKTN in late 2021 offered an initial snapshot of the digital skills gap in the UK, and the role of digital skills bootcamps in tackling the problem.
So, fast forward a year, and to accompany the buzz of Birmingham Tech Week – which both the WMCA and UKTN will be participating – now is an ideal moment to reflect on how this topic has evolved.
The size of the digital skills gap
A gap, a shortage, a crisis – call it what you will, the news is awash with stories relating to the dearth of digital skills across the UK and the impact this is having on employees and employers alike. Indeed, just this past month a new study found that 81% of UK managing directors are seeing a lack of digital skills negatively impact their company.
It is a well-established, long-standing issue. As technology has grown to play an ever-more important role within organisations of all size and sector – the digital skills gap is not, after all, a problem only affecting tech businesses – the more employees have needed digital skills to perform their roles.
As with so many trends relating to the ways we work, the Covid-19 pandemic acted as a catalyst. It resulted in a significant rise in demand for digital products and services, while 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. Digital skills have become completely essential in so many organisations.
Putting it into context, a 2021 report (the latest available) 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. I suspect these numbers will have risen since this report’s publication.
The breadth of skills required
That there is imbalance between the digital skills sought after by employers and those possessed by potential employees is irrefutable. But we must acknowledge that this is a far deeper, more complex issue. Namely, ‘digital skills’ is an incredibly broad term, encapsulating myriad proficiencies.
The skills gap includes everything from basic digital skills – competence in using a laptop, email and programmes like Word – to more advanced abilities – everything from cybersecurity and digital marketing to coding and software development. The skills gap will mean different things to different organisations, depending on the nature of their work and what they need from employees.
The breadth of specialisms and skills that make up the digital skills gap is reflected in the articles that the WMCA and its partners have contributed to UKTN over the past year. We have discussed gender inequality in coding, cybersecurity skills within SMEs, data analytics in healthcare, and better training for digital support skills.
However, despite the wide-ranging nature of the skills shortage, there are some critical concepts that appear in all of these articles: inclusivity.
Simply put, if we are to effectively tackle the digital skills gap, we must ensure as many people as possible have access to digital skills training. This involves championing diversity and inclusivity and breaking down barriers relating to gender, age, ethnicity, wealth, background and location – all things that prevent people receiving training or pursuing digital careers.
The role of skills bootcamps
Digital skills bootcamps have a critical role to play. 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. And, crucially, they are a great example of public-private sector collaboration in opening pathways for people to receive vital digital skills training and then connecting them with the employers seeking those skills.
Bootcamps 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.
To date, with multiple tranches of government funding, the WMCA has working with specialist training providers to run over 200 bootcamps. This has helped over 2,000 people to access vital skills training in everything from data analytics and data engineering, web development, coding, UI and UX design, cloud computing, digital marketing and cybersecurity, and more.
Crucially, as noted, the bootcamps are an excellent bridge between the public and private sectors; public sector funding and organisation are combined with skills training from industry experts and engagement with business leaders.
Moreover, the fact that the bootcamps are free and, in many cases, run on evenings and weekends, they have inclusivity at their core. Indeed, many providers have a very clear focus on targeting marginalised or disadvantaged groups, tailoring the structure and delivery of their bootcamps accordingly.
Since I wrote my first article for UKTN a year ago, the WMCA’s digital skills bootcamps – along with those run by other local and combined authorities – have gone from strength to strength, with more participants, training providers and employers engaged in the initiative. I have every confidence that this trend will continue, with digital skills bootcamps having a key role to play in bridging the skills gap that continues to trouble employers and employees.
Ultimately, there will be no quick or easy fix to the skills shortage. It will take a sustained, multi-faceted approach from educators, government and businesses. But so long as diversity and inclusivity are at their core, and we ensure a clear collaboration between those delivering the training and employers, then we stand a good chance of bridging the gap in the years to come.
In partnership with the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA).
Julie Nugent is the director of productivity and skills at WMCA. 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, Local Enterprise Partnerships, 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.