Addressing the UK’s digital skills deficit

16th June 2021
Joe Bush

According to Deloitte, over the next decade, the current outdated system of education and workplace training could see the UK forgo up to £140bn in economic growth from missed opportunities in intelligent technologies, such as artificial intelligence and automation, which will in turn undermine our future prosperity. Deloitte has also found that just 18% of business leaders believe that school leavers and graduates have the digital skills and experience required.

Imagination Technologies has recently published a new whitepaper: ‘Digital Skills in Global Britain’ and recently hosted a team of experts to discuss the issues that currently exist and what needs to be done.

“At Imagination Technologies we are committed to playing our part in securing the UK’s future as a digital skills leader,” commented Simon Beresford-Wylie, Chief Executive at Imagination Technologies.

“As a leading semiconductor company, we’re absolutely committed to being UK-centric when it comes to our research and development in investment. We partner with universities through our Imagination University programme, engage with local schools, champion diversity and inclusion, and invest heavily in learning and development.

“We do this because we know our success depends on sustained access to skilled talent. With technological changes likely to accelerate in the coming years, closing the digital skills gap is more important than ever. And I strongly believe that this can only happen through much closer collaboration. The UK must turn the page if it wants to emerge as a global digital skills leader. Action is required.”

A culture shift

The UK’s skills deficit is one that is not mirrored in other areas of the world and Tim Whitfield, Chief of Engineering at Imagination Technologies, commented that the majority of applicants for Imagination’s UK-based roles are from overseas. This is no bad thing as Whitfield explained that the company needs a highly skilled, diverse, talent pool. However, it did make him wonder what was being done in places like Taiwan and India, to create this strong pipeline of talent.

“I actually spent five years living and working in Taiwan in a previous role before I joined Imagination,” he added. “And engineering qualifications are something that many young people aspire to and are supported by their families who see it as a very rewarding and respected career. Gender diversity is also way more balanced in that part of the world.

“I don’t see a significant shift with regards to the female engineering population in the UK. There’s been lots of initiatives, great outreach - either company, government or school sponsored - but sadly very little seems to have changed since my days as an undergraduate in the 1990s.”

He explained that a culture shift is required if we are to make engineering and technology an attractive, credible and respected career. And while engineering is certainly viewed as being more on point than it used to be, it still has some way to go before it is mentioned in the same breath as medicine and law. Indeed, Whitfield explained that many of the cohorts on his university course ultimately left engineering for the ‘glamour’ and earning potential of accountancy and finance.

Even the word ‘engineering’ has been misused in recent years and has conjured images of mad scientists running around in white coats. “This is not engineering as I know it,” Whitfield continued.

“Engineering is collaborative, creative, and it changes lives - we solve global, environmental and health issues, and we improve the way people connect and communicate.”

bridging the skills gap

It is important that we don’t just promote the ‘shiny’ stuff i.e. (the things that people see and use), but also the grass roots of technology - chip design, low level software, security, safety, AI and engineering ethics etc. These are interesting topics, but not the elements that people necessarily see when they pick up a mobile phone and think about technology.

In order to do this Whitfield emphasised the importance of starting early and casting the net wider. “I’ve seen many initiatives aimed at various age groups to try and promote STEM subjects,” he added.

“However, while it’s all well intentioned, many still lack a real consistent approach to change that culture that I was talking about.”

We’ve all heard anecdotes of young people being turned away from engineering careers by family, friends, or even careers advisors, in favour of what is perceived as better options. However, the sector must fight back and educate young people on what engineering really is - a creative, sustainable, world-changing career – while also creating role models and engineering evangelists.

“Many young people simply don’t have an accurate understanding of engineering,” Whitfield continued. “If you ask my family what I do, and you’ll get shrugged shoulders. But if I was to tell them I was a key part of the mobile revolution, and that the technology I designed has changed lives and helped people engage across the world, then people start to get more interested and that’s the kind of image we want to try and portray. So, we need to engage with children at the earliest school ages, and make sure that we connect the theory to applied engineering.”

Whitfield added that the final piece in the jigsaw is investment. The UK has this incredible history in science and technology, which continues to this day - you only need to look at the ongoing pandemic and the leadership the UK has shown in genome sequencing and vaccination development etc. However, the typical global tech hubs for applied engineering are found on the west coast of the US, China, Taiwan, and India.

Therefore, it is vital that we incentivise engineering and technology education. There are many ways in which to do this such as educational subsidies, sponsorship programmes etc, but it is vital that the teaching is relevant, and geared towards real-life engineering skills. “In a world that’s increasingly flexing its muscles, regarding technology sovereignty, it’s really important that the UK is able to produce a pipeline of people and companies that continue to develop these leading-edge products,” Whitfield added. “This means engaging people at an early age, providing the right education and, above all, making sure people understand what it really is that we do and why it’s important.”

Cultural shift with added diversity

A thriving UK engineering community is a diverse engineering community, but when it comes to diversity challenges, there is no single silver bullet, rather, there are a number of areas that businesses need to consider. The correlation between diversity and inclusion, and improved business performance, has long since been proven, and there are a number of references available from the likes of McKinsey etc that proves this.

“We know that diversity and inclusion bring together talent with unique experience, knowledge and perspectives,” added Kay Hussain, CEO, Women in Science & Engineering (WISE). “This in turn generates more ideas, improves problem solving, drives creativity and innovation, strengthens the team, and ultimately the results. Embracing the business case by concentrating on the value that diversity and inclusion can deliver would give companies the impetus to change.”

The business case for inclusion and diversity are compelling as investors are starting to examine an organisation’s commitment to the issue prior to deciding on funding, while it is also something that customers are also starting to look at when weighing up their suppliers.

bridging the skills gap

If an organisation decides to embrace the business case for diversity, then it really needs to be embraced by the business’ leaders. Diversity and inclusion are not a nice to have, but rather, it needs to be a fundamental part of business strategy. Every leader should be able to articulate the need for change, should challenge bias, and then change attitudes, policies and practices, and take accountability for delivering that cultural shift.

“It should be treated no different to any other business improvement project, and associated targets, action plans and governance are absolutely critical,” added Hussein. “When targets are put in place, and there’s commitment to a plan by leaders, it demonstrates that it’s important work which will stay firmly on the radar of those senior leaders.”

It is also important that tech has more relatable role models. People simply do not aspire to be what they cannot see. Therefore, more visible women, and minority groups, working in tech at all levels, would help to attract more people to study and pursue a career in engineering.

There is currently a real disconnect between young people’s use of technology, and the recognition that they could be the future creators of it. There is a significant lack of awareness and understanding about the roles available, and youngsters don’t understand what working in tech means and looks like.

“There’s a real opportunity to enhance business outreach with schools, colleges, and universities,” continued Hussein. “Tech businesses could really help to inform the curriculum, keeping it relevant as things change. Businesses can also help raise awareness and inspire and build understanding of how STEM subjects taught in school pave the way into future tech careers.”

Another vital issue that needs to be addressed is returner and retrainer programmes which help combat the regression of female participation, especially in the wake of the pandemic, where women were disproportionately disadvantaged.

Hussein added: “We need to make sure that we get agile closure of the digital skills gap. We require organisations to rethink recruitment policies and recognise the value of transferable skills to broaden the talent pool. If I take female STEM graduates alone, around two-thirds of them don’t actually progress into higher skilled STEM roles, and just in that group alone, there’s a huge amount of untapped talent.”

Engaging with the challenges

Margot James, University of Warwick, and former UK Government Minister for small business in digital, was part of the panel of experts brought together by Imagination. She picked up the story: “When I was in the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) as a minister, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), put out a report benchmarking digital skills across the G20, and found that Britain could achieve an immediate five percent improvement in productivity if it raised its level of digital skill capability up to the OECD average.

“The irony is that our technology industry, outside of the US and China, is one of the strongest and fastest growing in the world, and it certainly outperforms every other European country as a sector. So how we support this sector, without purely relying on the import of talent from abroad, was a constant dilemma.”

She added that not only is it vital that we support our own young people, but it is equally important that support continues throughout an individual’s career. If society is to be given more of a level playing field, and opportunities given to people in communities who have lacked investment in previous decades, then digital capability is at the core of improving people’s life chances and access to better paid employment.

Every survey shows that jobs advertised now require at least basic digital skills, however, quite a significant minority of the population lack even these, getting worse the further from London and the south east you go.

Another vital area is business owners and leaders as the majority of Britain’s wealth is actually created by SMEs, and many of these leaders lack confidence. “The Federation of Small Businesses surveyed its members and found that two-thirds lacked confidence with digital capabilities,” James added.

“That underlies the point that you cannot address this problem and improve the digital skills gap just by focusing on the population in full-time education. We’ve got to look at supporting reskilling throughout people’s lives. And I’ve found quite exciting opportunities for doing that in my new role at Warwick University.”

Opportunities and solutions

Jonathan Slater, Former Permanent Secretary, Department for Education, explained that University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are a great way to open the eyes of young people from disadvantaged communities.

Also vital is the work of The Careers & Enterprise Company, which is funded by Government but independent of it, and puts youngsters into meaningful engagements with industry. There are over three million secondary school children and college students gaining experience on the site of potential employers every year, opening up their minds and aspirations to things that they would not have thought of before.

Slater added: “There’s a long way to go and Government and business need to work in partnership. However, there are some very encouraging signs. Only a couple of years ago, The National Centre for Computing Education set up with around £80m going in to train 8,000 computer science teachers.

“There are 30 school hubs, some of the best in the country, that are really starting to accelerate and that is going to transform the nature of children’s experience and what they learn at school around digital - it is going to be transformational. And not just the technical skills - but also skills around teamwork, and all the other soft skills that are required by industry.”

Last year saw the introduction of the first ever T levels, the first of which to be rolled-out was the digital T level – which is the equivalent to three A levels. They carry a rich, work experience component, and there is much more investment in the teaching of the course when compared to other methods of further education.

Another new introduction into the education landscape is the new digital boot camp - 12 to 16 weeks of intensive digital training to get employees up to speed, where the employer has the chance to either select the training provider, or to co-design the programme. The Prime Minister has also made a very bold statement of the lifetime skills guarantee, where everyone would have access to four years higher technical education, just as easily as getting a loan for university.

“The idea is that Government will operate a number of Trailblazer sites this year, and issue new governance arrangements for Local Skills Improvement Plans,” Slater continued. “The Government will be working with combined authorities but the aim is to put employers in charge, which will ensure that those Skills Improvement Plans meet the needs of the employers, area by area. The colleges get increased funding but deliver against the skills the employer needs.

“So, there’s a lot of initiatives and I think they’re all taking us in the same direction. There are great opportunities for employers to play a really important role with Government - both nationally and locally.”

Here come the girls

The lack of digital skills in the UK is well-documented and contributing to that lack of talent coming through is undoubtedly the small percentage of the engineering workforce that is made up of women.

If we look at the tech sector alone, only 17% of IT professionals are women. Those are pretty low figures when you think that women constitute close to 50% of the workforce. Research shows that women are equally as capable of being successful in STEM roles as their male counterparts, and generally outperform boys in STEM subjects at both GCSE and A level.

Hussein continued: “We really need to be making sure that aptitude and capability is harnessed moving forward. When WISE did the analysis of the 2020 A Level results for computing, we realised that it is a growing subject - computer science is getting more uptake and companies are investing and starting to drive for change.

“Employers also need to think about the language used in talent attraction and recruitment activities so that their opportunities speak to a broader talent pool - we know at WISE that research shows that women are more attracted to roles that have got some kind of socio-environmental purpose, so employers need to appeal to that.

“WISE has a careers’ platform called My Skills, My Life, and a lot of our role models cite that improving the world is one of their key drivers. So, for example, if you connect someone’s individual contribution in a tech role to the bigger picture, you can help attract a very different pool of people.”

Conclusion and the future

It is important to remember that digital skills are evolving all the time. And that’s one of the problems of embedding them within education. We won’t have to travel far into the future to see that a lot of the digital skills being taught in the first year of university now, will be out of date by the time that graduate is 30 years old.

James suggested that perhaps the onus should be placed on educational institutions and the Government to look at the model that has pertained for many years in medicine. Students undertake a medical degree for seven years, but when they are unleashed on patients over the next 40 years of their career, they are not expected to purely refer to the knowledge they gleaned whilst studying. Rather, there exists the concept of continuing medical education (CME), which is a requirement of the profession, and a certain number of modules are completed over the lifetime of a typical medical career.

“There is a case for looking at digital in the same way,” added James. “There is the similarity of knowledge being superseded quite rapidly. And I think it’s a justification for a continuing digital education approach. We have to get away from the traditional model of education for digital.

“As an example, WMG at the University of Warwick, has provided the academic components to all of Dyson’s apprenticeship in work skills training for the last four years. It all takes place at Dyson’s plant, and they get roughly a day a week of academic input from engineering and technical specialist teaching staff at WMG. That has led to a position where Dyson has now been awarded degree giving powers, which is an absolute first for a company to be able to do that, and that’s phenomenal.

“It’s a real testimony to that company’s commitment to education and training. And if every company in the manufacturing and technology sector had the same level of commitment to vocational technical training, then we wouldn’t have a problem.”

Science, engineering, and technology change the world we live in and solves its problems. Of course, people can be taught specific STEM skills such as how to build a chip or how to code. However, more fundamental to the digital skills sector is the ability to problem solve, think and be inspired. That’s what the industry is all about and if we can get that message across then the future will look bright for all of us.

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