As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss square up to win the votes of 160,000 Conservative party members and take home the coveted prize of next UK Prime Minister, a lot of promises are being made about how they plan to rescue the country’s economy. Growth and productivity are rightly top of the agenda, with the candidates going head-to-head on tax policy, tackling inflation and returning a stagnating economy to growth. With a surge in productivity vital to this, it is clear that if we want to hit the ground running we need to deliver investment in digital and technology skills and training, argues Paul Geddes.

 

Embracing a technologically advancing workplace

Digital transformation, a movement accelerated by the virtual boom brought about by COVID-19, is reshaping the recruitment landscape. Businesses are desperate to attract and retain talent specific to their digital goals but are facing a devastating shortfall in appropriate applicants.

It is estimated that 11.8 million people (over a third of the workforce) lack the basic digital skills needed for the workplace . Without action, this could turn into an overwhelming imbalance of unqualified employees and result in a significant decline in productivity. To prevent this outcome, government must ensure skills remains a priority now and in the future.

Closing the digital skills gap leans into two main demographics: training young people through skill-specific programmes such as digital apprenticeships and reskilling the current working population. These two options require investment and continual promotion from government officials to help advocate the benefits for both employees and recruiters.

 

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships not only offer an accessible alternative route to higher education without tuition debt, but also help to train a highly skilled cohort of workers. However, government data shows that nearly half of apprentices failed to complete their apprenticeship last year – a worrying figure that we cannot let slide during this time of political upheaval.

By learning on the job, apprentices come face-to-face with everyday industry experiences, granting them practical and applicable skills for the workplace. And with benefits such as zero tuition debt and the opportunity to ‘earn while you learn’, apprenticeships also provide vital opportunities for improving social mobility. It is only by highlighting the professional and financial benefits of STEM-related apprenticeships (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), that we can increase the number of digitally qualified young people and secure a diverse pipeline of future talent.

 

Reskilling and Upskilling

Reskilling and upskilling the workforce has similar advantages in closing the digital gap and driving economic growth, with the added benefit of increasing employee retention. The Great Resignation, which has seen thousands leave jobs in search of better benefits, higher salaries and quicker career progression, has significantly impacted the recruitment industry. This global phenomenon has cultivated a generation of workers who are fiercely ambitious and extremely selective in equal measure.

By promoting training as one of their core benefits, employers will appeal to those looking to advance their careers through learning, thereby improving their ability to retain top talent. Indeed, in the US, 61 percent of workers have deemed the opportunity to upskill as “very important” when deciding whether to stay in their job . Recently, large UK businesses such as BT have made significant strides in this area, investing in ambitious upskilling programmes across the UK and India. This improved retention will feed into overall business health, while also increasing the digital talent required to operate effectively in this technologically advancing world.

 

Pushing the agenda

Today, as digital transformation paves the path to the future of working, skills is emerging as the most valuable currency at our disposal. To side-line the skills agenda during this time of political conflict risks stalling UK prosperity on both a micro and macro level. If employees, businesses and UK plc in general are to stimulate growth and reach digital goals, leveraging skills is critical.

As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss embark on a summer of campaigning, I hope to see skills at the core of their manifestos. Crucially, once our new Prime Minister is elected, we must see the government take real action to champion investment in training programmes and initiatives as much-needed solutions to the ever-widening digital skills gap.

Paul Geddes is CEO of QA, previously working at the Direct Line Group, prior to this Paul was CEO of RBS Group's mainland UK retail banking business, following a successful career in multichannel retailing and marketing at leading companies such as Kingfisher, GUS and Procter & Gamble. Paul is a Non-Executive Director of Channel 4 Television Corporation.