At a recent event held in its London office and attended by over 70 high-profile guests, BCS announced the Digital Skills Network – a new community founded to meet tomorrow’s societal challenges through filling today’s digital skills gap.

Digital skills have never been more important and, as such, seldom in such focus. Vacancies are shooting up in the IT sector. Demand for advanced digital skills is increasing, but so is the need for intermediary skills.

A recent report by the Royal Society concluded that it’s not about a minority having advanced digital skills, it’s about the majority having intermediate technical skills. What is holding UK industry back isn’t the technology, but rather a shortage of people knowing how to design, deploy and also use systems.

Computational thinking skills are essential for the next generation to both understand and to change the world. At the moment, the world is dealing with the fallout from global warming, the war in Ukraine, Brexit, a slump in birth rates and a need to address social issues with “levelling up”. IT and IT skills are at the heart of meeting all these challenges.

A collective and collaborative solution

It’s against this backdrop that BCS launched the Digital Skills Network. The  aim is to tackle some of the most pressing issues in the UK’s IT skill shortage. It  will help do this through provoking discussion and to facilitate the conversation and action between all interested parties, government departments and industry stakeholders.

The Digital Skills Network brings together employers of all sizes and from all sectors, providers and educators, policy makers, local digital skills boards, charities and partner organisations. In fact – any organisation that has an interest in digital skills both now and in the future can join.

The Digital Skills Network was launched in late May 2022 at BCS’ London office. Where experts from across industry, the government, charities, and training providers attended, participated and shared their views about building up the tech skills of the nation.

Government policy and influence

The Minister for Skills, Alex Burghart, gave the keynote speech. He said the government was increasingly encouraging people to consider getting the skills and qualifications they need while working. That could be via the apprenticeship route or studying T-Levels, where work placements make up 20% of the course.

Speaking at the event, Burghart said: ‘I believe in the power of degrees, but I know there’s another way to achieve the same ends.’

Addressing the current temperature of the IT skills economy, he said: ‘Digital is running through so much of the skills work the government is doing. Never have we known a time in the economy where the country has been so hungry for skills. The big thing we need is for everyone to have better digital skills because it enables us to do more.’

BCS’ place in the conversation

Annette Allmark, Director of Apprenticeships at BCS echoed these sentiments and stated: ‘Attached to every occupation, there are digital touchpoints, and these are found in every sector whether it be health, fashion, sport, finance – they all have digital skills needs.’

Digital skills and their centrality to many jobs and roles in the modern working world was a theme explored by Bill Mitchell, BCS Policy Director at BCS.

Addressing the audience, he stated: ‘Digitalisation was the key to recovery in the pandemic. In small companies, there needs to be a level of sophistication to survive, adapt and diversify.’

Mitchell argued that computational thinking skills are essential for the next generation to both understand and to challenge the world.

At the moment, Mitchel explained, the world is dealing with the fallout from global warming, the war in Ukraine, Brexit, a slump in birth rates and a need to address social issues with levelling up.

Mitchell warned however than the IT industry needs to be mindful about how it approaches filling the skills gap. It would be tempting to prioritise building a full and fast skills pipeline which produces coders, architects and designers at great speed. For IT to meet tomorrow’s challenges however, Mitchell explained that the industry needs to take a more nuanced view.

Rather, for IT to achieve its full potential and to elevate everyone in society, the industry needs to focus on growing tomorrow’s professionals – people trusted by the public to build and make systems.

‘What does it mean to be responsible?’ Mitchell asked. ‘In essence it’s a combination of three things – ethics, competence and accountability. In order to be trusted, you have to prove trustworthiness.’

Finding solutions

Turning the UK’s IT skills gap challenges into opportunities won’t be an immediate or easy process. It’s a job of work which will, the Digital Skills Network’s assemblage demonstrates, need collaboration across the whole skills pipeline.

Speaking about education’s role, Julia Adamson, Director of Education at BCS, said: ‘Teachers are delivering digital education. But digital is moving so quicky. The only way this is going to move forward is for industry to support the learning of teachers. It’s not enough to say that young people are coming through without the digital skills, we have to deliver that education now. The problem is if we don’t deal with that now, the digital divide will get wider.’

More than just the right thing

Diversity is also a critical factor the IT industry needs to address. Currently, women accounted for 50% of the working age population in 2020 (those aged 16-64), 48% of those in work and 45% of the unemployed. By contrast, there were 312,000 female IT specialists in the UK workforce during 2020 - 19% of the total at that time.

If gender representation in IT were equal to the workforce 'norm' there would have been an additional 466,000 IT specialists in the UK and 778,000 female IT specialists in total in 2020.

This isn’t the full story though. Embracing other under-represented groups offers the IT industry similar untapped resources. Across ethnic groups and people with disabilities, BCS research finds that there is much work to be done to encourage, enable and empower people. And, if we get this right, we won’t just be doing the right thing, we’ll also be helping to create a more sustainable, larger and more diverse IT workforce.

Finally, last year’s COP26 meeting in Glasgow shone a spotlight on sustainability and green IT’s place in the global debate. As an industry we need to think about green by default and start developing green IT career pathways.

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Data, digital and the information technology industry as a whole have unique potential when it comes to meeting global warming’s challenges.

Unique because digital’s potential runs two-fold. It can help organisations find efficiency through digitalising legacy processes. By moving old paper-based operations to the cloud, IT systems can deliver huge and measurable savings across more than just balance sheets.

The IT industry itself is also focussing on being more energy efficient. Hardware and infrastructure is being designed and deployed with energy frugality engineered in, right from the requirements stage. Similarly, software and services are coded with efficiency at their heart.

Summing up the event, Lucy Ireland, Managing Director at BCS Learning and Development, said: ‘The launch of the Digital Skills Network brought together the people who can shape the digital training of the current and future workforce. We've had excellent feedback from attendees about how the event was a fantastic opportunity to share ideas and think about how we can all work together.

'We're very excited about continuing the conversation and are looking forward to regional Digital Skills Network events in the coming year In closing, Ireland highlighted BCS’ new for 2022 IT and Digital Apprenticeship Awards, another step forward to celebrating and showcasing digital talent. The awards will be held on 12 July 2022 at the Reveller, Tower of London’.