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Business owners warned of Britain’s digital skills gap

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by Jo Sellick | 18 June 2018

Growth in the British economy slowed down in the first quarter of 2018 to just 0.1 percent, which is the slowest rate since 2012. A number of factors have been blamed for this with the Office for National Statistics suggesting that a sharp fall in construction output and a sluggish manufacturing sector was behind it, while others pinned it on the extreme weather conditions at the start of the year. It is an undeniably complex situation with many variables, but one thing we know for sure is that productivity needs to rise if the economy is to survive the challenging post-Brexit years ahead.

Digital skills will be crucial to this growth in productivity, as they lie at the heart of almost every industry. Whether you are a manufacturing firm, a university, a hospital or a fashion brand, technology is set to play an increasingly important role in your success. In order to navigate this changing landscape, you will need people who possess the right skills to maximise on digital resources. Unfortunately these individuals are paradoxically both in short supply and in incredibly high demand, creating an expensive and difficult dilemma for employers.

The problem started at the turn of the millennium, when the creation of new technology began to increase at such a rapid pace that our country’s existing workforce could not possibly keep up. This was coupled with the fact the education system took years to adapt and train the next generation of digitally skilled school-leavers, creating a skills gap that has been widening ever since. Schools, colleges and universities have now started to introduce coding and other key IT skills onto the curriculum, but this will take years to come into fruition and our businesses will suffer in the meantime.

Suren Thiru, Head of Economics at the British Chambers of Commerce, recently said: “The persistent weakness in UK productivity reflects the longstanding structural problems in our economy from a chronic skills shortage, to our creaking infrastructure and the escalating cost of doing business in the UK. Delivering solutions to these key business concerns would help boost investment and drive the productivity gains we need to boost the UK’s long-term growth potential.”

Employers have two options in order to bridge the digital divide and avoid paying over the odds to access the tiny talent pool that is currently on offer. They can either invest in training existing members of staff and make them more digitally savvy or hire from overseas, sourcing candidates from countries that prioritise technology in their education systems. Collaboration between companies would help with the first option, as businesses could share skills with one another and be more open about the talent they have. The problem with the latter option is that Brexit has already made life difficult for overseas workers, and this will only worsen once the UK leaves the EU for good. Our government needs to support an immigration policy that welcomes talent from abroad and demonstrates that the UK is a good place to develop your career as a digital candidate.

There is also a third option, which is to strive towards less reliance on technology and refine your offline skills. Of course, technology has huge advantages and is essential in many ways, but there are also softer skills that can set businesses apart from their competitors. As our focus shifts to digital, we must not forget the importance of traditional abilities such as nurturing business relationships and being able to passionately demonstrate your expertise in a face-to-face environment. In my own field of recruitment, these types of skills can often make the difference between a candidate being hired over another, especially when they are both at the same level of technical ability. The best candidates – and indeed the strongest businesses – will possess a mix of digital and softer skills, and know exactly when to call upon each of these essential tools in their arsenals.