There is little doubt that technology is developing faster than the UK workforce is able to adapt to it. Josie Fraser of the Open University argues that a new approach to employee training and development is required.
A recent Open University report found that 88 per cent of organisations across Great Britain lack digital skills, with many expecting shortages to increase in the future.
Of course, digital skills are not just about the needs of tech companies. Today, digital technology touches nearly every industry, and nearly every job function, to some extent.
The UK needs to consider how to train significant numbers of the existing workforce, not just young people entering the workforce, in new technologies. And in order to retain existing staff and help them adapt to new roles that emerge in an unpredictable and rapidly shifting employment landscape, a new approach to employee training and development may also be required.
Identifying the gaps
New technology and automation do loom large in employees’ minds – particularly among younger workers. While one in six of the workforce believe they will have to change jobs at some point because of new technology or automation, this figure rises to a quarter of those aged 18-34. Entry-level employees have high digital literacy: this could be harnessed by forward-looking employers willing to offer younger workers training opportunities.
While there is a need to increase foundation level digital skills, most employers stated that higher (degree level) digital skills are currently more of a priority. Organisations report that the lack of appropriate digital skills at intermediate and senior management levels are having the most significant negative impact on their productivity. This suggests that employers could focus on building higher-level skills at management level, and consider postgraduate qualifications where employees already have a degree.
Addressing the gaps
With future roles likely to require a greater level of technological know-how, employers need to consider how they can address the gaps between competencies for existing roles with those competencies that will be required in future roles. More than a quarter of companies report redirecting their training budget to focus on building digital skills within their organisation, while a further 41 per cent are considering doing this. In addition, 30 per cent of employers report sending staff members on more external training courses.
Getting started with training if, as an employer, you are trying to get to grips with the complex world of digital skills – or are having difficulty working out training priorities – can be challenging. The first thing to consider is a skills audit. There is guidance and consultancy available to help organisations assess where specific skills shortages lie in their organisation. Alternatively, employers can do this themselves by aligning existing job roles with the capabilities set out in the SFIA Foundation skills and competency framework.
There are plenty of good quality free resources available. For example, OpenLearn, The Open University’s open, free educational resources website, hosts hundreds of study units at levels ranging from introductory to masters' level that can help organisations kick-start their learning journeys.
Initiatives like the Institute of Coding, a consortium of technology companies and UK universities funded by the Office for Students, are creating a range of opportunities for people to acquire high-demand digital skills – from short courses, to degrees, to coding boot camps, to ‘return to tech’ courses for women after career breaks. Some of these are full-time, and will increase the pipeline of talent available for hire in the future. Some are online and part-time courses, offering opportunities for employers to upskill existing staff without losing them to a full-time training programme.
For the many organisations facing digital skills shortages, higher-level, degree and graduate apprenticeships are likely to provide the skills they lack most acutely. At a recent apprenticeships round table, large employers confirmed that when they invest in apprenticeships, those employees are retained for longer and productivity is increased.
Apprenticeship standards have been ‘employer led’ by design. This means that organisations do not have to wait until employees complete their qualifications to begin to see the benefits. The combination of on and off-the-job learning and development ensure that apprentices can start applying new knowledge and skills in their workplace right from the start – so organisations start to see return on their investment quickly.
Shifting the learning culture
Future proofing UK business for a digital future means that training and development needs must become a priority. For many companies, this means that there is an urgent need to implement a shift in learning culture. Senior leadership teams, together with their human resources departments, should champion employee development strategies that prioritise ongoing learning and development.
Putting modern, flexible learning at the heart of UK businesses will create a more engaged and productive workforce, able to up-skill effectively in a rapidly evolving digital world.