More than 12 million people and 1.2 million small to medium businesses do not have the necessary digital skills to meet the demands of the new economy, according to research by charity Go ON UK. While individuals and business leaders will no doubt be concerned about the gaping skills hole, it is the impact on the overall economy that could be more telling.
Writing in the Institute of Director’s Director Magazine in November, David Stokes, chief executive at IBM UK and Ireland said that “the technology and digital skills gap is casting a greater shadow of doubt over the long-term health of the UK economy.” As it stands, he writes, 7.5 per cent of the UK workforce is employed in digital industries and 12.4 per cent of our GDP is attributed to technology and digital business - the highest of any G20 country. Yet according to Employer Insights more than 70 per cent of large companies and close to 50 per cent of smaller firms are suffering from the skills gap.
So what can be done about it?
While all schools must follow the National Curriculum for ICT for a grounding in technology skills and principles, it is the proof of practical skills and experience that employers look for, especially since the initial launch of the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) in 1995. As a proof of competence it is now widely accepted and many schools do offer students the opportunity to take ECDL as a module to learn application user skills.
But not everyone takes ICT at school and not everyone takes digital literacy. Given the proliferation of digital assets in business and within organisations of all shapes and sizes, it’s no surprise there is a digital skills gap because digital qualifications such as ECDL is not regarded as an essential qualification in schools. Times are of course changing fast and to ensure we plug those holes, we need to look at how to play catch-up.
This is where many of our great FE colleges are stepping in. Despite being under constant funding pressures (more of which will no doubt come in the next Government Spending Review), FE colleges consistently push to fill education holes and are well positioned to drive the necessary increase in digital skills training.
While reports such as the Lord’s Digital Skills Committee’s Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future (released in February 2015) suggested FE colleges were not doing enough last year, there have been plenty of developments this year to suggest that FE can be a key player.
For one it is the ability to be open to new ideas and industry. Despite limited budgets FE colleges can be a platform for innovation. According to Bob Harrison, a trustee at Ufi charitable trust, there isn’t a single solution for FE and training but “the blending of a range of tools woven into more traditional teaching methods will be key to the successful growth of workforce training.”
Harrison was speaking at the launch of Ufi’s unveiling of 16 projects, which include hardware, apps, e-learning and supporting services, all of which have been funded by Ufi to drive innovation in FE learning by removing the risk of new technology and innovation from FE budgets.
There is also the close role of industry. FE colleges have a history now of working closely with businesses to develop courses and qualifications that meet the specific needs of employers. Companies such as Microsoft in Derby or BAE Systems in Hull are just two examples. Regardless of the ultimate goal though, students will need to hone their digital skills regardless of whether the ultimate interest is design, business studies or travel.
The recent changes to the curriculum where the onus is on computer science, which is essential to the ongoing success of the UK economy, must not be to the detriment of learning application skills, such as word processing, databases, spreadsheets and presentations as these skills are now essential for any industry. FE colleges are more resilient on this front, offering a range of courses, such as ECDL and ECDL advance regardless.
One of the advantages of the FE courses is progression. While students may want to stop at the level 2, for students keen to advance their skills further there are other on-site options for further development. Another advantage is relevancy. Courses are targeted towards the requirements of industry, so there is no unnecessary theory.
For schools with limited budgets and facilities, local FE colleges could also potentially provide a valuable resource for current students. In the bun fight for budget, schools and colleges need to be clever, for the sake of the students and the sake of the economy. We cannot afford to fall behind on digital literacy.
A report from the Association of Colleges (AOC) puts it more succinctly. “A strong and growing economy is in all of our interests, and colleges play a central role in sustaining the recovery - they are the skills powerhouses that drive the local and national economy. Further education colleges across England make sure future workers have the skills employers require, and provide young people with the education and training they need to succeed.”