This year has been like no other in living memory. Decades old work patterns have been disrupted, whole industries have been affected so badly that they may never bounce back and we’ve seen the Government have to provide the living wages of millions of workers.
For me though, Covid19 has merely accelerated many of the changes that were already taking place. The slow death of the high street, a move to flexible and home working, increased use of artificial intelligence. In short, the digitisation of our economy and our lives has massively sped up over the past 7 months.
This move to digital is however a painful process. Millions of businesses and staff do not possess the knowledge to be able to compete in this new landscape. In fact, a recent survey by Lloyds (Digital Business Index 2019) showed that the digital skills gap was increasing pre Covid. At the same time though, millions more older people and those in poverty don’t have access to the technology, nor do they know how to use it.
Meanwhile our digital infrastructure is not yet world class with too many areas of the country without fast enough internet. We have two generations of digital natives (Millennials and Gen Z) who are least likely to get a job in this new climate but possess the innate skills to thrive within it.
Then we have the issue of older business owners refusing to accept they don’t understand the ‘new normal’ or simply not knowing what they don’t know and therefore not seeking support.
We are however entering one of the most uncertain periods of history that we’ve experienced since the end of the Second World War. We’ve not yet beaten Coronavirus yet we’ve then got three more huge challenges awaiting us. These are Brexit, the impact of Climate Change and the increased automation of even professional tasks by smart algorithms.
So what are we offering up as a defence to these threats and how are we going to enable the UK to compete in this 4th Industrial Revolution? Alas, as things stand, we have a very fragmented approach to business support – especially when it comes to digital skills.
There are a multitude of bodies all competing for the attention of our 5.4m businesses. We have the big tech companies, Government-backed bodies, enterprise support organisations, local authority economic development teams, banks, growth hubs, colleges and universities as well as a vast array of digital ‘experts’ from the private sector.
The issue is two-fold. Firstly, none of these organisations really work together to bridge the digital skills gap and secondly, despite all the efforts of this group the vast majority of SMEs are blissfully unaware of how they can seek help and become more competitive.
So I am thrilled that the Government has taken the digitalisation agenda seriously by creating a number of Digital Skills Partnerships (https://www.gov.uk/guidance/digital-skills-partnership) across England (for now). Six have been set up and a 7th launched this month (October) in West Yorkshire. For the first time, it has been recognised that an array of different local bodies need to work collaboratively in order to solve the massive challenge of upskilling our workforce and our population.
I gather that the first DSPs have been successful enough to convince the Government to roll them out across the rest of the country. However, they MUST be backed up by proper funding and an understanding that this is as vital an investment in the future of the UK as HS2, expanding Heathrow or creating new trading relationships with the rest of the world.
So, here is my digital skills manifesto for 2020 (and beyond):
- Everyone needs to plan for change. There is no more business as usual.
- Harness the innate digital skills of the under 35s. Make use of students on work placements and young adults on Kickstart.
- Employ an army of on-the-ground advisors to signpost people to digital skills support.
- Build a decent online portal containing details of all training providers, tech support and grants available.
- Seek sponsorship and/or match funding from large corporations and the big tech companies.
- Bring all those organisations working in the digital skills space together so they can work collaboratively.
- Most businesses in the UK are micro SMEs with less than 5 employees. These are the backbone of our economy and need to be supported with their digital skills.
- The traditional media has a role to play in educating people and businesses about using technology – particularly local newspapers and radio stations. This will help with digital exclusion.
- Encourage better inter-generational communications so that different age groups can learn from one another.
- Get ready for the 4th Industrial Revolution - a world of 5G, connected spaces, driverless cars, wearable technology and increased automation.
The time to act is now. If we are going to meet our aspirations of being a world-class economy and providing our citizens with the skills and infrastructure they need to communicate in today's world, we need a proper plan and roadmap for action.