How can the UK can stay ahead of the game with digital skills, according to Natalie Gross

By Rachel Johnson
24 Jun 2019

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Original article reported in the Evening Standard.

Education and communication are key to moving past the digital skills gap, says Natalie Gross

The UK is the third best country in the world at producing successful tech companies, it was announced.

Figures compiled by Tech Nation and Dealroom for the Government’s Digital Economy Council revealed the UK stood behind just the US and China in the listing.

In creating 13 new unicorns in the last year alone, UK tech has made more $1bn companies than any other European country. It would seem safe to say, that when it comes to tech, the UK is up there, leading the way.

But what about our digital skills gap? Unfortunately, it does exist, and as a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research predicted last year, it could lead the UK to miss out on £21.8bn of economic benefits over the next ten years.

What can be done to stop it? Natalie Gross, President of Britain’s digital community BIMA, has some answers. “If we could act in one fell swoop, we would make the change at curriculum level,” she says.

However, it’s not just about the next generation. It’s also about raising awareness amongst the current one – awareness of how such skills as project management, critical thinking and creativity are fundamental to the digital sphere, in addition to, of course, coding.

Here, Future London talks to Natalie Gross about the skills gap, and what the UK can do to stay at the forefront of this pioneering industry.

What is the digital skills gap?

It’s complex. But what it generally means is that, at a higher level there are more jobs available in the economy than there are people available to fill those jobs.

These jobs are, at one end, those that people will typically associate with ‘digital’ – programming and computing. But there are many others too: creative skills, consulting skills, project management skills, sales and commercial skills. These are all the areas in digital where there are a shortage. So when we talk about ‘digital skills gap’, that’s what we mean.

Why is there this gap?

One of the challenges around the education model is that it tends to focus on computing skills. Computer skills are obviously very important, but digital literacy is probably as important as the ability to read and write. What our systems are failing to recognise is that digital literacy is not an option on our curriculum, yet it underpins everything around how people will be able to function moving forward.

This is what needs addressing if Britain is to thrive as an economy. Another thing people fail to realise is that critical thinking, analytical thinking, creativity – amongst others – are all as important a component of digital literacy as computing skills. We only focus on the computing end and turn off thousands of potential workers who could enjoy lucrative, successful careers in digital, because they don’t understand that digital is part of every career, not just programming or computer science.

How can we change this?

I think there are two ways to address it: through the curriculum and communication. One of the things we really need to focus on is building a communications platform for Britain, to get people understanding and interested in digital skills and digital opportunity.

Government and local authorities are trying to take responsibility, but they’re not cutting through. We’ve seen lots of little initiatives, but they lack one big way of achieving and communicating it. That’s a challenge.

What digital skills should we be looking to have?

Obviously the ability to code is a wonderful skill and a lot of people need that. But creative thinking and creative skills are incredibly important too, as is problem solving. We have amazing new technologies from AI to Internet of things, self-driving cars, virtual reality and blockchain. But these require not just people to create them, but people who can imagine how to use them – which can be applicable to a number of markets, from healthcare to financial services and agriculture.

That’s one of the disconnects we see. Digital skills run through every subject, and therefore, every subject should be teaching digital skills. There are the people that can make and create, and then there are the people who can conceive and think and drive their industries forward; those that can come up with new ways to do things, based on these technologies. You can be aware of what’s going on in technology without necessarily being able to code in those technologies. And that’s what’s so magical about our industry.

How can people acquire new digital skills?

Apprenticeships are a really good route to go down. For those looking to change jobs, there are lots of social enterprises out there too. Look to your local community; you will find, usually, very well-funded initiatives around changing your skillset and developing digital skills.

How does London fare against the world in terms of tech?

London is very good because we attract talent from all over the world. We’ve got brilliant infrastructure and universities, and a do-it-yourself culture. Where we are poor is as a talent producer; we’re not getting enough talent pipelines through. And I think there are examples of other countries – in Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and Asia – who are much more progressive in their digital agenda.

How can this change?

The Government has to be the centre of it, in partnership with industry. Industry is incredibly important in helping drive the agenda – the appetite is there.

What we can do to help is enable people to become digitally literate and also raise awareness. When people become aware that the digital industry is such an attractive opportunity – in terms of being interesting and financially lucrative – then they will start to explore working in it, or working in an industry where digital skills are required.

It’s about raising awareness and helping to galvanise the individual spirit. It’s incredibly important.

BIMA Digital Day – find out more about how BIMA is helping to address the Digital Skills gap by bringing young people and industry together. Here’s how you can get involved.


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