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Collaboration is the key to bridging Britain’s skills gap

Image credit: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Dreamstime

A critical shortage of relevant digital skills is threatening the UK economy’s ability to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Partnering with the private sector can help to address the problem.

Speedy implementation of a vaccination programme and a savings boom amid the pandemic have raised hopes of a rapid recovery for the British economy. The outlook is less optimistic when looking at what will be needed in the longer term - a digital skills gap that was widening long before Covid-19 and continues today, raising the question of whether the country’s workforce is equipped with the skills needed for the UK to “build back better”.

Recent figures on young people’s uptake of digital skills highlight a growing mismatch between the increasing demand and the number of trained people available. According to a study by the Learning and Work Institute, the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE level has fallen by 40 per cent since 2015.

In a report published in March 2021, the independent policy and development organisation also found that confidence among businesses about digital skills is low, with less than half of UK employers believing that new entrants to the workforce are arriving with the necessary digital skillset. In 2019, nine out of 10 organisations surveyed by The Open University reported that they had a shortage of digital skills, a number that is likely to rise as the digital skills gap widens.

Amid national lockdowns and working from home policies, many businesses have sped up their intelligent transformations, meaning that digital skills have become even more valuable and crucial. To recover from the coronavirus pandemic, 80 per cent of UK business leaders believe that investment in digital skills will be needed.

From a business perspective, urgent action is required to close the gap. What is causing the shortage of digitally skilled workers?

One reason is the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs. As one of the UK’s first female telecoms apprentices back in the 1970s, I am more than aware of the gender disparity in STEM subjects and jobs, despite the long way we have come since I started my career.

Research by PwC looking at women in tech shows that women make up only 23 per cent of STEM jobs and remain underrepresented in the sector. Even more concerning, only 3 per cent of women say that a career in tech was their first choice – an alarmingly low number narrowing down the pool of recruits.

There are many reasons for these figures. One is a lack of inspirational role models for women in tech. Things are improving, but more work is needed.

Another reason is the lack of alignment between the digital skills taught in educational institutions and those needed in an increasingly digitalised working world.

Keeping up with the fast-paced world of technology is challenging for the educational sector, where teaching staff already face a heavy and time-consuming administrative workload that makes it hard to keep curriculums up to date and to ensure that young people are sufficiently trained to enter the job market with the skills needed to work in STEM jobs.

The solution? Partnering with the private sector to close the UK’s digital skills gap.

I believe that making the private sector a partner in equipping young people with digital skills is an effective way of tackling these issues. If women are reassured that the skills they are being taught are valuable in the job market, it will make them feel confident in taking up STEM subjects, thereby increasing the number of recruits.

The private sector can also help by providing training, teaching and inspiration from mentors and practitioners from a range of backgrounds, which will improve diversity.

Making use of businesses’ resources to establish such programmes can yield powerful results. For example, Huawei’s ICT Academy Programme, which I lead across Western Europe, is piloting ‘women only’ STEM classes aimed at creating a network of women supporting each other’s learning.

Learning resources provided by the digital and IT sector can significantly ease the burden on teaching staff, helping them to keep abreast of the fast-paced changes in digital skill requirements. This means that teaching staff can focus more on actual teaching, secure in the knowledge that what they are teaching is up-to-date, relevant and valuable to their students.

Pallavi Malhotra is head of Huawei’s ICT Academy Programme in Western Europe.

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