​The lost generation of digital natives

A report released on Monday outlined the severity of the UK's digital skills gap: around 12.6 million UK adults lack basic digital skills. A global study of the online generation, however, pegs the nation as tenth in the world, with over 7 million 'digital natives' in our midst.

How can UK businesses reconcile these numbers, and what does this mean for the future of our business landscape?

The term ‘digital skills shortage’ is one report away from eliciting a collective eye roll from the UK’s small and medium businesses, primarily because there has been a lot in the public domain on the severity of the situation, but nothing much on how businesses can narrow the skills gap.

The most recent study, a report released on Monday by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, reveals 745,000 more workers with digital skills needed by 2017. The contentious issue of seeking foreign talent through skilled expats looms ahead, as businesses and governments try their best to make digital skills second nature to the British workforce.

Bringing sexy back

Many believe that the root cause for the science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills gap is simply bad PR. The media paints a glamorous post-graduate career for the creative English major-turned-fashion journalist, or the MBA-toting financial consultant. The spunky barista-turned-entrepreneur is a veritable modern icon. The sciences, however, are for the exceptionally gifted or socially-awkward. In a word, unglamorous.

“It’s clearly an issue that STEM subjects still suffer from an image problem. It’s often assumed that the only jobs that you can get with a degree in maths or engineering are highly technical, difficult and even dull,” Regina Moran, CEO of Fujitsu UK and Ireland said.

“We must tackle these prejudices and showcase how exciting digital jobs can be, both within tech and other sectors. Technology is being used to address some of the most crucial issues in the world, and solutions are becoming ever more people-centric. Creativity and innovation can be as important as technical skill in fast-moving digital jobs that present new challenges every day. It is only by engaging a diverse array of young people in STEM that we can hope to protect the future competitiveness of the UK economy.”

After years of teaching engineering and working with thousands of students at all levels, Dr Mariappan Jawaharlal, believes the onus to make STEM subjects fun is on teachers. “I believe part of the responsibility in shrouding STEM subjects with fear and boredom, lies with STEM educators. It seems that misguided mathematicians, educators and curriculum experts with no real-world experience use these subjects to demonstrate their intellectual prowess,” the mechanical engineering professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, wrote in a Huffington Post article.

Moran sees government initiatives like the upcoming Digital Strategy, as a crucial step in encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects among schoolchildren. But how can a government-mandated campaign glorify the sciences? And how are digital skills even an issue for a generation labelled ;as ‘digital natives’?

The lost generation

According to global insight measuring the world’s digital natives, the UK is at the bottom of the top ten league table. Still, 7 million connected youths suggests that the future workforce has bridged the long-standing digital skills gap.

According to more recent research from the ECDL Foundation, however, young people can’t build their digital skills without support through training and education. The study reveals the fallacy of ‘digital natives’ who can intuitively learn computer skills simply by picking up a tablet or laptop. Using the findings of extensive academic and industry research, it shows the extent of the problem, and the danger for Europe’s economy of a digital ‘lost generation’.

“The new digital divide is a divide between those who have skills for their lifestyle, and those who have skills for the workplace. That will be the differentiator between those who will have access to jobs in the future, and those who might struggle,” Damien O’Sullivan, CEO of ECDL Foundation, explained.

The foundation warns businesses, educators and governments across Europe against assuming young people will be able to get on without proper education and training in digital skills. Being a Snapchat expert, or an Instagram guru adds little value for workers beyond the realm of social media marketing. And even that job role requires extensive knowledge of marketing metrics and technical strategy.

A recent report found that in Germany, only 20 per cent of surveyed respondents could successfully apply a paragraph style in a Word document. Meanwhile, a study in Italy found that 42 per cent of young people were not aware of the security risks that can be involved in wireless internet access.

“We are seeing poor digital skills in countries that are recognised for having very digital societies. What I find even more worrying is that people don’t even know the extent of the problem or where they themselves are missing ICT skills,” he added.

Graduates aren’t business-ready

For Ross Fraser, VP and MD at EMC UK&I, graduates currently just don’t have the skills they need to add immediate value to a business. “The UK is perceived to be leading the world in terms of the National Computing Curriculum and IT education in schools generally. However, graduates still aren’t arriving on the market “business-ready” and need rapid training to make them useful and effective to the business,” he said.

EMC’s recent The Great Skills Exodus report revealed that only one in five IT workers believe that their organisation has a focus on innovation to a great extent. At the same time, 88 per cent agree that the growth and success of their organisation is fundamentally reliant on technology.

“Businesses need to start taking digital transformation more seriously and nurturing digital talent in order to compete in a highly competitive market,” he stressed.

Collaboration is crucial

Echoing the sentiments of most other successful technology businesses with a vested interest in the UK, Fraser emphasised the potential role the private sector can play in training the digitally clueless. “Whilst the Committee is already calling for changes, it’s important for employers to work closely with the education industry; to help identify what skills are needed and where the talent gaps lie to help attune education to the industry’s needs. The good news is that, through working closely together, both the business and employee objectives can be achieved,” he said.

According to Michael Gould, CTO and founder of York-based unicorn, Anaplan, the long-standing conversation around the UK’s digital skills gap is only getting wider, which provides the private sector with an opportunity to step in and help mould the future workforce. “While there is much for government to do, companies need to engage with education, to foster new digital talent and provide stronger local networking opportunities to open up dialogue with students and universities,” he said. Anaplan practices exactly what it preaches, working closely with the council and Make It York to support local academia.

“Equally, it is important to focus on grassroots talent. We have been involved with Code Club, where some of our senior developers and architects volunteer to help children (aged nine to 11) to understand and enjoy technology and get them started on coding at local schools,” he added.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.

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