Project Updates - Digital Skills for Entrepreneurs and Workers - IED

Are digital skills optional for businesses to succeed? That is the question posed by a recent report commissioned by the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

As various studies have shown, digital skills are becoming increasingly important for businesses to develop competitive advantage, retain and attract talent and to develop innovative ways of working. Yet, we are still not completely sure of the demand for digital skills which can vary from basic word processing skills to knowledge of highly specific software. 

By analysing millions of online job adverts in the UK, this study attempts to address this issue and give pointers as to the future policy support needed to enhance digital skills demand and provision across the UK.

The first finding from the study is that employers are increasingly requesting baseline digital skills - such as Microsoft Office – as essential for entry into jobs with over three quarters of employment opportunities within the current market requesting digital skills. 

More importantly, the study suggests that digital skills are not specific to only technical roles with 68% of postings requesting these skills being outside of information technology (IT) roles. For example, much of the demand for data analysis and digital marketing skills are predominantly in non-IT roles. 

It is also important to note that specific digital skills can also promote career progression and again, these skills are not only required in the tech sector but are in demand across all sectors of the economy.  These may include digital tools such as Adobe Photoshop for designers; computer-aided design for engineers and manufacturing workers; customer relationship management software for sales and marketing professionals; and computer programming and networking for IT professionals.

Given this, the question is how much of our skills development within schools, colleges and universities (especially in non-IT subjects) provide the training to students that is relevant and up to date? More relevantly, what role can they then play through continuous professional development in the upskilling of employees into high level digital positions?

Another key finding is that jobs that require digital skills are better paid i.e. those roles requiring digital skills pay nearly a third more on average than those that do not. Whilst this happens at all skill levels, it increases as the job gets more complex i.e. high skill jobs with digital skills pay £43,300 on average as compared to £34,000 for similar non-digital positions. Indeed, the acquisition of specific digital skills makes career progression (and increased pay) more likely.

This has considerable implications for a Welsh economy which is at the bottom of the UK earnings league table with the median average gross weekly earnings in the Welsh workplace being £509.00 as compared to £569.00 for the UK as whole i.e. 89.5% of the UK average. Could a greater emphasis on developing more digital-ready roles increase the demand for higher paid jobs within the economy?

The myth that digital skills are only in demand in the more prosperous parts of the UK is also shown to be a fallacy. Yes, 87% of all jobs in London are digitally intensive but areas such as Northern Ireland, which as far poorer, also have 86% of all job roles demanding digital skills. 

Unfortunately, Wales and the North East of England – two of the most deprived parts of the UK have the lowest proportion of jobs requiring digital skills, this still accounts for 75% of all advertised roles.  Indeed, the precise digital skills needed by industry can vary by region - 

for example, machining and engineering software skills are in low demand in London but are in high demand in manufacturing intensive regions such as the West Midlands and Wales.  In contrast, digital marketing and CRM (customer relationship marketing) skills are a requirement within the UK’s capital city but not in nations such as Wales and Scotland. This has important implications for economic growth given that roles needing these two skills are the fastest growing in the UK. 

Therefore, the study reinforces previous research about the relevance and importance of improving digital skills within the economy. However, it also begs the question whether Wales needs to develop its own up-to-date digital skills policy that matches the demand of key sectors and helps develops the specific skills needed by Welsh businesses now and in the future? 

And if such a policy does emerge, it is clear that it must be fluid in being able to adapt to the dynamic nature of demand for digital skills across all sectors, although this flexibility is normally anathema to policymakers in the public sector.

Finally, and most importantly, educational providers must reflect this fast changing environment in developing the relevant training for employers and ensure that students have the particular sets of skills that they need to get a job locally. 

If they do, then the effect could be truly transformational on a Welsh economy that, in order to grow, has to position itself at the forefront of any digital skills revolution.

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