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So what are the skills that employers need in the next decade? That was the question posed by the UK Government’s Department for Education and the Skills and Productivity Board to Warwick University’s Institute for Employment Research and the think-tank RAND Europe.

Their recent research report is an important read not only for businesses in the UK that are facing a talent shortage but also for those policymakers who seem unable or unwilling to consider new ways of delivering the digital skills that are needed across all industries in order for them to remain competitive.

As with other studies examining the future needs of the labour force, the vital importance of digital skills is again highlighted as being key to the competitive advantage of organisations in a range of sectors. These skills include knowledge of artificial Intelligence, automation of processes, 3D printing, cloud-based computing,  information technology and communications systems, and the Internet of Things.

However, this challenge is not about providing a “one size fits all” solution as the report showed that sectors had varying needs when it comes to digital skills with a range of occupations highlighting different priorities in terms of developing this area. 

For example, the health sector was well advanced in some aspects of digitisation mainly as a result of the Covid pandemic with staff having already been supported to use higher levels of online communication and consultation with patients.  That is not to say that no further training is required and with an expected increase in the use of wearable devices to support diagnosis, more support will be needed to educate staff over the next few years in this area.

In science and technology jobs, the ability to learn and adapt to new software and hardware technologies will be in critical demand from employers especially in areas such as coding, computer aided design and automation. In addition, a lack of understanding of data science and statistics was noted as an existing concern and the ability to analyse data was viewed as a necessity in carrying out roles within the sector in the years to come?

For managers, there is a need to fully understand how digital technologies can better support the different functions of the organisation and its future strategic direction. In particular, appreciating the impact of technologies such as virtual reality and customer relationship management systems are key to ensuring that the business responds properly to changes in its market and the needs of customers. 

Unfortunately these skills and understanding how to manage and implement technological change and innovation are rarely taught on management courses such as the MBA which means that managers are simply not being given the knowledge about these critical areas.

For skilled tradesmen and women, the demand will be largely operational and will focus on the use of new technologies and tools especially the way they are manufactured, installed or used. In particular, the increasing digitisation of environmental sustainability will lead to greater demand for digital skills in low carbon heating, electrification of transport and smart buildings. This will require a significant programme of retraining for employees who have yet to utilises the tools required for these areas.

Whilst there are differences in the level of digital skills required in different sectors and occupations, the report also demonstrates that overall digital literacy across the UK workforce is an essential requirement especially given that skills around the understanding and use of data will only increase in importance in future. 

For example, those working in skilled trades require digital literacy to utilise technological aids such as  mobile phones or tablets on site for tasks such as communicating with customers and clients, undertaking bookkeeping and accounting, and looking up product specifications before purchasing. 

Another key requirement will be the ability to understand artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud-based computing as there will be a need for more people with skills in analytics and data science in all industries. Indeed, the handling of data and knowledge on data storage and data security will be a key requirement for employees given the growing importance of cybersecurity in protecting organisations.

Therefore, this critical study provides even more evidence that digital skills are crucial to the future development of organisations across all sectors of the economy. However, the most important finding is that formal education and training is not the only route to upskilling individuals in digital skills and it could be argued that the current setup within most universities is not conducive to prioritising the integration of these skills into existing programmes of study. 

More relevantly, the requirement to upskill and reskill the 30 million employees on the payroll of organisations across the UK is seemingly not on the radar of the higher education sector and there may be a need for alternative methods of delivery which will ensure that the UK develops the digitally skilled workforce that is critical for the needs of the economy over the next decade.

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