Industry and academia can close the UK’s digital skills gap

Students collaborating with laptops
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The speed with which the world is changing, not least under the additional pressures levied by the pandemic, makes it near impossible to predict exactly what skills workers will need in the next five to ten years, let alone over the span of their entire professional lives. 

About the author

Chris Rothwell is Director of Education at Microsoft UK.

What is certain, however, is that the list of capabilities demanded by employers is growing - and nowhere more so than when it comes to the level of digital expertise expected of graduates entering the workforce. Not only does this present a challenge for them, but increasingly, academic institutions are feeling the pressure when it comes to preparing their students for a successful and rewarding career in a technology-driven world.

The digital capabilities conundrum

Recent research from Microsoft and LinkedIn Learning looked at how the UK’s universities can equip students to thrive in tomorrow’s workplace - but also laid bare the work that the UK still must do to close the digital skills gap, as 80 per cent of employers believe that graduates do not arrive fully equipped with the skills they need to be work ready.

In the past, leaving university or college with a good qualification in their chosen field was enough, but now, that’s just the beginning. No matter what the job or sector, employers expect graduates to arrive on the first day with an awareness of the digital capabilities required to work in a modern, often hybrid or remote working environment. While this is a good starting point, graduates would do well to have at least a grounding in advanced technologies such as AI, coding, data and cloud computing, to truly capitalize on future opportunities available to them, as the adoption of these technologies remains a high priority for business leaders.

Yet currently, as students are encouraged to keep employability in mind when making decisions about their studies, the sheer pace of change is making it difficult for them to decide upon which career path to take, let alone what capabilities they will need to be successful, with 68 per cent of students reporting that they are unclear as to what skills they need to learn to start their careers.

According to earlier Microsoft research, in partnership with Goldsmiths’ University, 69% of leaders say their organization is facing a digital skills gap. LinkedIn’s data supports this, finding that of the ten areas facing the biggest skills gap in the UK, six require advanced digital capabilities, with the greatest mismatch appearing in the ‘Data Science’ competency.

This situation must be addressed - and fast. Without the necessary digital skills, young people won’t be able to fulfil the roles employers are recruiting for and this will, in turn, negatively impact on both their own futures and the long-term competitiveness of the UK economy.

Academia is feeling the pressure

There is now a stark mismatch between the skills employers are seeking and how students are being prepared for the workforce within their learning settings, which is contributing in no small part to a UK-wide tech talent shortage. Vice Chancellors, Principals and other senior leaders at academic institutions admit that their institution still lacks the skills, resources and infrastructure necessary to perform in their role effectively as a learning ground for degrees plus digital skills – and they’re calling out for help.

To prepare their students for success, institutions must go beyond traditional learning and support the growth of digital skills across all types of courses. First and foremost, this will involve a mindset shift. Honing workplace productivity skills should become a foundational element of every further or higher education experience – then act as a platform from which students can learn more about advanced capabilities in cloud, data and AI. Whilst it’s true that not all students will become software analysts, anyone running or working within a business must appreciate the potential of these technologies to impact critical areas such as efficiency, profitability and competitiveness, as technology slips ever more seamlessly into our day to day lives. Aligning specific skill sets on top of academic programs and ensuring these competencies are baked into every student’s university experience is the only way that they can hope to meet the new expectations of the workforce.

As just 28 per cent of UK business leaders believe the education system offers adequate digital training, the time is now for higher education leaders to seek support in preparing young people for an agile, digital workplace where technology is ever evolving. It’s this support that businesses such as Microsoft are uniquely placed to provide.

Partnering with industry

There’s a clear opportunity for private sector organizations to make a tangible and long-lasting contribution to solving the UK’s lack of digital expertise. Not only by helping institutions to strategically plan how best to support students in developing these critical skills and behaviors, but by supporting education leaders in garnering stakeholder buy-in and investment to implement changes.

Supporting institutions to develop digital solutions that boost productivity – by manipulating data and unlocking the opportunities of cloud computing and AI – or providing personalized career coaching to students that help them navigate a rapidly evolving world, are just some of the ways in which education establishments can help equip the future workforce with the skills they need to succeed.

There is no time to lose. Change is rapid, competition for jobs is fierce and the onus is increasingly falling on higher and further education institutions to step up and help close the digital skills gap. By working together and combining the power of both industry and academia, we can equip students today with the digital abilities they need to thrive in their chosen career tomorrow.

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Chris Rothwell is Director of Education at Microsoft UK.