Understanding the digital skills gap

techUK’s skills, talent and diversity policy manager on how we can tackle the digital skills gap in an age where digital technology is an increasingly important part of our working and personal lives


Digital technology came of age in the pandemic. From ordering food, clothes and other essentials on our mobile apps and tablets to connecting with friends, families and colleagues via video communications, technology was constant and crucial in surviving lockdown. 

It may come as a surprise then, especially to parents of teenage kids, that there is a chronic lack of digital skills in the UK holding back business from taking full opportunity of the technological shift. 

In 2019, before the pandemic hit, a report from the Open University revealed that 88% of businesses had a shortage of digital skills already impacting productivity, efficiency, and competitiveness.

With universities and schools closed and workers missing out on digital tuition in the workplace during lockdown there are fears that this gap may have widened.

The digital skills gap could hit profits

According to a report earlier this year from WorldSkills UK, 60% of firms believe that their reliance on advanced digital skills will increase over the next five years. However, just over three-quarters of businesses believe that a lack of digital skills will hit their profitability. 

This skills gap, despite those kids with their heads down over Minecraft and FIFA, includes young people coming out of school or college. The number taking IT subjects at GCSE level has fallen by 40% since 2015 with the number taking A levels, further education courses and apprenticeships also declining.

But it is not just young people entering the workforce where the gap is clear, there is also a lack of skills amongst adults re-entering employment or displaced from the pandemic into a new career. There is also a need to upskill those already in employment no matter their age or position.

According to the Lloyds Bank Essential Digital Skills report for 2021,  4.9 million people in the UK can’t turn on a device and log into any accounts or profiles they have by themselves. 

“The focus has to be across the digital skills landscape. It is not just more education for the young that we need but also adult and further education,” says Nimmi Patel, techUK’s skills, talent and diversity policy manager. “The gap in skills is also across the whole workspace with 82% of all jobs requiring digital skills. That is only going to increase.”

What digital skills do we all need?

So, what are these digital skills that so much of the UK workforce and our youngsters are missing out on? What do they need to know?

The first stage is the five basic digital skills that everyone needs, including being able to communicate online, manage and store information securely, and transacting, problem solving and being safe and legal online.

It also includes making simple use of digital devices and functions such as navigating a website to access a public service or being able to send an email. The Lloyds report revealed that a fifth of the population, around 11 million people, are digitally disadvantaged because they lack these basic skills. 

According to techUK, the next stage is digital skills for the modern workplace, which is an intermediate-level of understanding. These are the skill sets that use digital and tech effectively on a day-to-day basis such as being able to use customer relationship management systems and software effectively.

The third stage is higher-level technical digital skills such as geospatial data analysis or coding as well as digital transformations and emerging technologies including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and cybersecurity.

“This is where the largest skills gap exists in the tech industry. Young people may always be on social media but that doesn’t translate over to carrying out data analytics on these channels,” says Patel. “But we are seeing gaps across all three stages. Each one needs a targeted approach to help people gain the skills they need.”

Changing the mindset around digital training

Patel says motivation is key to begin addressing these gaps. “It is hard to convince people that they really require these skills,” she says. “Many businesses also don’t offer training. They are not doing this as much as they should and could.”

Encouragingly, Patel says the lockdown may have shifted attitudes both at an individual and organisational level as people realise the vital role digital plays in their lives, the economy and job opportunities.

In a poll at the end of last year, techUK found that 58% of those aged between 16 and 75 wanted to gain more digital skills in the next 12 months. “There is more interest both amongst workers and businesses buying digital technology and starting digital transformations. It is important that we build provisions around upskilling and re-skilling to ensure that we don’t lose this momentum,” she says. 

What can businesses do?

Businesses should identify digital skill gaps by looking around their industry and rivals. What are they doing? How is digital helping them in product innovation or customer service? They could then look at creating flexible bitesize online digital learning programmes where employees from every department - not just the IT group in the basement - can upskill and retrain at their own pace. To encourage a culture of digital learning, employees could be awarded internal certifications or badges for each course they complete.

Employers could also signpost staff to the Government’s Skills Toolkit – free online learning covering computer skills, digital design, coding, and computer science including AI. “These online short modular initiatives are so important as they can reduce the barriers to people learning. It provides an area where you can say here are the tools and we can help you and support you. Just pick one of these and we will give you the time to complete it,” Patel says. “The Government has also launched ‘An Hour to Skill’ campaign to encourage employers to give staff an hour to work on a Skills Toolkit course.”

In-person classroom teaching may be more suited to some basic skills training with many employers using a hybrid model. SMEs could also utilise the Apprenticeship Levy to bring in more young talent into organisations as well as new digital T-levels focussing on essentials such as understanding data and digital systems.

The need for digital role models

techUK also champions businesses encouraging young people, importantly including women and those from diverse backgrounds, to learn about ‘role models’ who have developed a career using their digital skills. 

“Employers are already doing this, going into schools showing young people what a career in digital looks like for people from all walks of life,” Patel says. “Taking a wider view, we need to embed digital in every part of the school curriculum. It is so crucial in every role nowadays and you don’t need to be Bill Gates to do it.”