In an analysis of the changes facing the global workforce, the World Economic Forum concluded that most of the skills that many employees currently have will be largely irrelevant by the end of this decade.

And as other research studies have also demonstrated, many of the new competences that will be needed are related to digital skills not only in knowledge-based industries but across all sectors.
Given this, the key question for many employers in this scenario is which digital skills will be most needed in the future?

This is the conundrum that the innovation body NESTA has been analysing in detail through the novel method of examining online job adverts between 2012 and 2017 and the study reveals some fascinating and sometimes unexpected findings.

First of all, the amazing number of digital skills across all sectors – 1,358 different types including 756 types of software - demonstrates the challenge in developing a coherent and comprehensive approach to training.

These range from Microsoft Project and interior design for construction engineering jobs; online marketing, Google Analytics and social networking for digital marketing roles; and electronic design, simulation and test equipment skills for occupations in electronics.

Another key finding is that measuring the overall demand for digital skills on its own can be misleading as it does not tell us much about a particular occupation’s job prospects i.e. those occupations that are least likely to grow have a higher digital intensity (which is measured here as the proportion of job adverts that mention at least one digital skill). Indeed, it would seem that those occupations that are most likely to decline have a higher level of demand for digital skills.
However, if we examine the exact type of digital skills required, then this begins to explain some of the differences we see.

For example, those occupations in areas such as administration that are predicted to decline or experience low growth (such as payroll accounting, supply chain and sales) tend to ask for software skills such as ADP Payroll, Navision and SAP Warehouse Management.

In contrast, the digital skills used in animation, engineering, education and computing are more prevalent in occupations that are predicted to grow.

This suggests that whilst not all digital skills will be important in the future (especially those that can be easily automated), those that involve non-routine tasks, problem-solving and the creation of digital content - such as graphic and engineering designs, software products/services and analytical outputs – are in demand by those occupations which will growing over the next few years. These include jobs such as mechanical engineers, artists and telecommunications engineers,

There is also the question of how important digital skills will become in those occupations - such as chefs, catering and bar managers, and primary and secondary teachers - which will currently do not have a high intensity of such skills but will, nevertheless, see further growth in the economy.
Another key issue is the expectation that it is only those in low paid jobs that will be hit hard under the digital revolution within the workplace.

In fact, the study shows that it is not only those in low paid occupations that are likely to shrink with those occupations utilising digital skills in high salary jobs such as supply chain management, procurement and HR management are likely to see a decline over the next few years.

Therefore, the NESTA has shone a long overdue spotlight on the real job needs within the economy for digital skills and, more importantly, has illuminated some of the real conundrums that organisations will face in ensuring that their employees have the right type of skills for the new digital age.

Perhaps what is most worrying is that whilst many administrative positions utilise digital skills within their daily routines, these are the ones which the research suggests will decline over the next decade and this may pose a significant challenge to employers.

On the other hand, the finding that non-routine tasks, problem-solving and the creation of digital outputs are the skills most needed in the future may help to focus retraining efforts in the right direction.

If nothing else, these results should focus the mind of educators, policymakers and businesses in determining which digital skills are important to the future of our economy and, more importantly, where scarce resources should be allocated in funding the training to support such skills.

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