Closing the Global Tech Skills Gap — How the UK Could Show the Way

November 10, 2016

8:30 pm

The global tech skills gap has been widely reported this year. But following a government report into the subject, it was found that the UK economy in particular is losing a staggering £63 billion each year from a lack of adequately equipped tech employees. The ‘tech skills gap’ stands between the open jobs in the technology sector and the employees who could potentially fill them. Since employees lack the skills to do these jobs, the crisis has arisen.

There is no doubt that this is a problem for many countries, but having gearing up to leave the European Union and lose scores of foreign tech professionals, the UK is not in an advantageous position to tackle it. Luckily further education is already making headway towards providing a solution, and if it works it could provide a blueprint for other nations.

How bad Is the Digital Skills Gap?

The Digital Skills Crisis report, published in early June by a cross-party parliamentary committee, definitively concluded that the tech skills gap is a real threat to the UK economy. 12.6 million UK adults lack basic digital skills, even though 90% of new jobs have these skills as a minimum requirement.

Jobs in the ever-growing tech field of SAP database technology, for example, require a vast level of technological expertise from their applicants. Aside from already possessing influential contacts in the industry, as well as the ability to speak other languages fluently, Daniel Patel from the SAP recruitment agency Eursap has advised that “it is vital to keep your skills, qualifications and technical knowledge up to date.” Like other job markets in the tech industry, SAP’s is dynamic and competitive, and for many non-digital job-seekers, attempting to get involved can feel like joining a race that’s about to end.

To add insult to injury, just weeks after the Digital Skills Crisis report, a thin majority voted for the UK to leave the European Union. This decision was decried by many tech firms, who immediately considered relocation. The so-called ‘Texit’ is made worse by the fact that many foreign tech professionals have been put off coming to, or will find it more difficult to come and work in the UK, since freedom of movement may well be lost after Brexit. This means the solution to the digital skills crisis is unlikely to come from better-educated migrant workers. The UK’s education system has to do the work.

How Further Education Is Helping

The Digital Skills Crisis report recommends the ‘upskilling’ of the current workforce as one way to close the gap. Thanks to further education, this is happening. In Ireland, many working professionals are going back into further education to acquire more computer and tech-based skills, allowing them to move into other job areas.

This trend is complemented by successful industry experts taking on further education lecturing roles to spread their knowledge, as part of an increasingly popular ‘career pivot’. These tech business leaders are better equipped than anyone to educate the public in digital skills.

This is no doubt a useful way to start closing the cavernous tech skills gap, but to ensure the gap doesn’t grow any wider, the country needs to do more. And further education could play even more of a role in the solution.

How Further Education Could Help Even More

Allowing further education colleges to teach higher education has been touted as a way to increase tech knowledge faster. If colleges could offer degree-level qualifications in tech-based subjects, these essential skillsets would be available to more people.

As Newcastle college principal Carole Kitching points out, young people from lower income households often cannot afford the ever-growing financial burden of university, opting instead for a college education. If colleges could provide more advanced tech education programs, more people could be learning tech skills and the gap would close much faster. With any luck, the government will agree, and allow more colleges to help solve this crisis.

Another way further education could help is through apprenticeships. While computer science degrees are popular at major universities, a better way to teach practical job skills and give workers real experience could be through apprenticeships.

A recent survey shows nearly three quarters of tech firms agree, believing the skills gap could be closed with more apprenticeships. Despite this, half of UK firms do not offer apprenticeship schemes. Thankfully, the government has started offering an apprenticeship levy to employers, which aims to create three million apprenticeships in the next four years.

Initiatives like these show the government and the industry working together to solve the digital skills crisis once and for all. For the sake of the British economy, let’s hope it works.

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Simon Davies is a London based freelance writer with an interest in startup culture, issues and solutions.

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