We may find that the word digital rolls off the tongue with a little more ease than just a few years ago, but just because we can say it, doesn’t mean we can do it. We have a digital skills gap, and sadly one that is diverging. 

First things first, why are digital skills important? At a business level, services are transitioning to digital platforms with the digital economy thriving globally, uniquely placing the UK to drive the vanguard. To do this, we need the know how – and in ever increasing numbers – across the full spectrum of digital development, implementation and cyber security. Meanwhile demand is outstripping supply, pushing up salaries, one of the reasons why the highest paid graduates are those with Computer Science degrees. Putting a figure on this is tough; recent research from Business News suggests we have a current gap of around 27-33% across deep tech skills in cloud-based infrastructure and cyber security (2 of many sectors). We also have an idea about the impact, with a report from Accenture highlighting that employees are falling short of the skills needed to meet the demands of a digitally-driven organisation. This skills gap is expected to cost the UK £141billion in GDP over the next 10 years. So yes, Westminster, we have a problem. 

On a societal level without an ability to control technology, citizens risk being controlled by it, or isolated from local and national communities. Any good engineer will tell you that when you understand how things work, you can work with it. As more services are brought online and physical entities contract, those without the right skills will be disadvantaged – there is a real threat that the digital revolution could act to widen the economic gap rather than improve it. As we all grapple with digital advancement, those homes flushed with expensive devices will naturally learn by living with the tech, and those that don’t, may not. Those that are less digitally advanced will no doubt fall behind in the job market and suffer from technological unemployment. 

Digital inequality is the part that scares me the most. I can see a future digital-life world with so much potential, it can build capacity in to our lives and our public services to spend more time being human and not drudging through boring process. Digital solutions can improve the quality and length of our lives, but there is a real risk some will be left behind. We know that girls in school are falling behind their counterparts – computer science has the unfortunate accolade of being the most gender imbalanced subject, attracting only 12% girls. When digital skills translate to a higher salary, this will only add to the financial inequality women face. Interestingly those 12% that step up to the mantle outperform boys in top grades.  For years, this divide was assumed to be symptomatic of technical challenges, and that women would simply ‘catch up’ with men when the world had cheaper devices and lower connectivity prices, due to the limited purchasing power and financial independence of women. The market has delivered reasonably costed devices and connectivity, yet we are seeing very little progress in gender balancing. In fact, EQUALS Research Group has noted, ‘gender divides widen as technologies get more sophisticated and expensive and enable more transformational uses and impacts’. This does not bode well. 

Why are we here?  I’m hoping that some of this will be shocking to you. Today, school key-stages 3 & 4 do not mandate that any digital subject is taught; depending on the school a student may stop computer lessons at 13, of course this results in a very mixed national digital performance picture. The Progress 8 initiative aims to capture the progress a pupil makes from the end of primary school to the end of secondary, across 8 fixed subjects. None of these subjects are digital. This means that when schools are making tough decisions about where to surge finite funding, there is little incentive to hand it over to the ICT teacher. We touched earlier on demand out stripping supply for digitally experienced hires, this means schools often struggle to fill vacancies – meaning non-qualified teachers have to cover. 

Then we come to what skills we should teach. The lexicon of digital and cyber has not yet stood still, many of us would struggle to write a job specification for a penetration tester or software developer, when we do we see little standardisation. If industry can’t lock down the skills we want and articulate the skills they need for their future workforce, how can schools teach it. This time lag is causing much confusion either side of the school fence. 

What can we do about it? (Author gulps)This is a tough nut to crack, but there are a few knots we could start with.

We know girls are good at this, their grades tell us so. If we can increase girl’s participation, this could chip a large chunk off the problem, for now. The NCSC Cyber First programme is doing great work with a national school girl’s competition. Gender balance in digital development is not just the right thing to do, there is a clear business case. With a 30% skills gap and so few girls participating in formal digital training, perhaps this is an obvious first step in plugging that gap. Some valuable lessons have been learned about diversity in coding – when Amazon developed an algorithm to sift its recruitment process to match profiles with known characteristics of success, they ran in to some problems. The algorithm selected out anyone who wasn’t a white man. Amazon didn’t find this out for over a year. We know that when you plug bias in to coding you get bias out. 

 To widen the net we need high quality, consistent, mandatory digital training delivered by qualified teachers in all schools for all ages. There are some softer elements here too; when polled the word ‘computer’ and ‘science’ promoted negative feelings in school age girls. Indeed, the term computer science no longer really reflects the subject matter – perhaps it’s time for a name change, which may break down a few barriers.   

The digital life world will be different, it is unlikely we will have just one or two careers, it is quite likely we will have to adapt to changing technologies and re-skill every 8-10 years. This means we may have to look at education differently – less bottom fed and more life-long learning. Building a lateral learning structure to enable pivoting through life would act to keep our economy reactive and agile, keeping us in the global digital vanguard. 

Getting the foundations of digital skills right is important to our future economic success and the quality of life of all our people. This is important stuff.