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Continuous workplace learning key to the UK government’s Digital Strategy

Two important government announcements have been made in the past few weeks that will directly impact the digital economy in this country.

The first is the publication of the Digital Strategy designed to make the UK the best place to start and grow a digital business. The second is a commitment in the Chancellor’s Budget of £40 million to pilot lifelong learning programmes.

Whilst the publication of the Digital Strategy has been long awaited, its emphasis on training is commendable. Four million free digital skills training courses will be offered to individuals, SMEs and charities over the lifetime of the Strategy. Encouraging people and businesses to be conversant with digital skills is crucial to the country’s next phase of growth as a leading digital economy.

The Tinder Foundation found that 90% of all new jobs require digital skills, with 72% of employers revealing that they would not even interview a candidate who did not possess basic computer skills. Yet currently 10% of the nation has never used the internet.  Digital inclusion must be a priority to ensure no one is left behind. Leeds City Council’s campaign “100% Digital Leeds” is paving the way, launching a new initiative to equip thousands of digitally excluded residents with basic online skills.

There are also changes in demographics to consider. Life expectancy has risen and people are working longer than previous generations. The job for life is over. We cannot predict the series of careers we will have in our lifetimes—some of those jobs haven’t even been created yet. Nor do we know how the advances in automation and machine learning will shape our career paths. Instead, we should all develop a thirst for continuous and lifelong learning – the only way to ensure our skills adapt and don’t become obsolete.

This is especially important as the UK is currently battling a productivity crisis. According to the ONS, the UK ranks 18 percentage points lower in terms of GDP per hour than the rest of the G7 group of countries. To help solve the skills and productivity gap, we need to dramatically shift our thinking towards workplace training right now, as it could be years for the measures proposed in the Digital Strategy to deliver the desired results.

This point is highlighted by the Barclays Digital Development Index which reports only 38% of UK workers are offered training in digital skills by their employers. We also fare poorly on workforce capability ranking seventh out of 10 countries when it comes to assessment of content-creation and coding skills. Further, over half of the UK’s digital community told Tech City that there is a shortage of highly skilled employees with nearly a quarter of companies describing sourcing talent as a ‘major challenge’.

Solving the skills issue will be instrumental in addressing this productivity gap. The Government appears to recognise this fact, and I’m encouraged by Philip Hammond’s statement in the Budget pledging £40 million to explore the best approaches for continuous learning. However, strategy needs to move quickly to delivery.

Technology moves so fast that to stay relevant employees must have access to the latest digital developments on demand.  The Government will have to realise that physical classrooms and one-to-one training cannot deliver its training ambitions at scale. The Internet has been a great leveller for education, and now it is democratising professional technology learning. Online courses accessible at any time of day allow far greater numbers of people to acquire the latest digital skills. Our experience shows that workplace learning is optimised when employees have their skill level assessed at the outset, and can then learn through online on-demand courses taught by industry experts. This learning by doing is much more effective than classroom theory, especially when you can add live video-mentoring on tap to problem solve and overcome any learning challenges that crop up.

There are already some encouraging signs that the UK is making good strides towards what commentators are calling the Fourth Industrial Revolution. According to the latest Technation report from Tech City, the UK’s digital industries contribute £97 billion a year to the wider economy. Not only this but 1.64 million people are now employed in the digital sector which is growing twice as fast as any other.

When you visit companies throughout the country you get a sense of the community that is being built around digital. 22,000 coding meetups took place in London last year, and the capital has twice as many Github users as Paris or Berlin. Leeds is home to over 300 digital startups, Bristol 225 according to the latest figures from Technation. To gauge what this means to the country, we can look at the Gross Value Added (GVA) calculated by summing the value of goods and services produced minus the costs involved in production. Tech City believes the GVA of a digital tech worker in the UK is more than twice that of a non-digital tech worker—£103,000 compared to £50,000. And with £6.8 billion VC funding in 2016, 50% more than any other European country, Britain is clearly on the right track.

It will be fascinating to see how the implementation of the Digital Strategy and lifelong learning pilots unfold. Today’s tech talent shortage cannot be allowed to get any worse, and we need to inspire young people from all backgrounds to pursue digital careers. But at the same time, companies must realise the vital role they need to play in upskilling employees. Only by embracing continuous learning will it be possible to create a future workforce that has the job security and relevant expertise for our post-Brexit digital economy.


Julian Wragg is VP EMEA & APAC at Pluralsight, an enterprise technology learning platform