Amy Caton, Digital Talent and Impact Senior Manager at BT Group
The working world is fast-paced and driven by technology. Such rapid change can make it hard for young people to know where to start when it comes to addressing the digital skills most coveted by employers.
It’s tempting to assume, in an increasingly digital world, that digital literacy is not an issue; that we can all interact intuitively with the apps and devices that now permeate our lives. Many young people feel tech-savvy, and confident using social media channels. However, in reality, the UK faces a large digital skills gap. Businesses must do more to close this divide.
But what do we mean by ‘digital skills’?
Digital skills can be defined as a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. Digital skill sets are wide-ranging; from how well a person can use a device like a computer, to harnessing higher-level skills such as software development, data analysis, machine learning, AI, and cybersecurity. Future.now estimates that there are 11.8 million people of working age still without essential digital skills for life and work. Shockingly, this represents 36% of the UK workforce.
The changing landscape of UK employment
It’s especially challenging for young jobseekers, a surprising number of whom have not been exposed to the digital tools used in the world of work. According to Nominet, a third of young people (32%) do not have access to home broadband, an issue which saw children unable to learn effectively at home during the pandemic, with nearly half relying on other ways to connect to the internet instead of home broadband. Around 16% of over-18s don’t have access to a laptop or desktop computer.
It’s easy to presume that young jobseekers are digital natives, but many are stuck in the ‘hidden middle’ – between digital exclusion and advanced digital skills. As a result, there are young jobseekers who lack the digital skills needed to thrive in the workplace. There were 458,000 young people aged 16-24 not employed in the UK from November 2022 to January 2023, up 27,000 from the previous quarter. This is not for lack of opportunities, as there are currently 1,124,000 vacancies in the UK. However, young people are simply not equipped with the necessary skills to carry out these roles.
The past 20 years have seen a tectonic shift in how we engage with technology and work. Because of this, digital skills are now necessary for two-thirds of UK occupations, accounting for 82% of online job vacancies. However, many businesses struggle to recruit people with the necessary digital skills, preventing companies from taking full advantage of digital technology. In doing so, the country’s competitiveness and productivity is harmed, leaving behind a potential £190bn in value to the UK economy untouched.
What can businesses do?
All this presents a real problem for anyone trying to launch their career – and for businesses as well. Despite a slight jump in youth employment of 86,000 between November 2022 to January 2023, compared to the previous quarter, businesses still need to do more to upskill this younger generation and close the digital divide.
Businesses must consider how they can interact with and support this target demographic at an earlier stage, equipping them with skills before joining the workforce. The provision of tech is one such way of introducing digital skills; especially to those from deprived backgrounds who might not have access to tools at home. However useful, providing devices without sufficient training will not be enough to bridge the skills gap. Companies need to link candidates to free digital skills training and offer support from online and offline communities to attract the best talent.
A force for change
At BT Group we are determined to help young people learn the digital skills to walk confidently into the world of work.
BT Group’s Skills For Tomorrow programme helps tackle the digital divide by providing young people from a wide range of backgrounds with the digital business skills, inspiration, and practical support they need to launch and succeed in their career.
We are a founding partner of the FastFutures programme, in partnership with Avado, which has now given over 7,000 18-24 year olds the digital skills to find work. BT Group also offers one day interventions for school aged pupils to broaden their horizons and learn more about careers in digital and data.
It is clear businesses need to anticipate the changing needs for digital skills for work and life, ensuring that no young person gets left behind. Equipping new talent with skills development and hands-on experience of jobs powered by technology, companies can help plug the digital skills gaps they face.