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The Essential Digital Skills Crisis Holding Back UK Workers and Businesses

A new report by FutureDot Now, a coalition of industry leaders who work together to ensure that all working-age adults have the digital skills they need for their prosperity and that of the UK, has laid bare the issue of the fundamental digital skills gap that lies at the heart of UK business.

Titled ‘The UK workforce digital skills gap: Why closing it matters and a roadmap for action’ (download the report as a PDF here), this report explains that technology is no longer a luxury; it's the lifeblood of our existence, shaping how we live, work, and engage with society. Yet, a staggering number of working individuals are digitally disenfranchised, lacking the basic digital skills to tap into the potential of technology fully.

This growing divide between the tech-savvy and the tech-deprived is causing dislocation in our economy and society. There is an immediate need for a concerted, urgent effort to arm every UK worker with vital digital skills. A fresh blueprint lays out a strategic plan for the government, industry, and civil society to cultivate a digitally adept and confident workforce.

The Extent and Impact of the UK's Digital Skills Shortfall

The digital skills shortfall in the UK workforce is vast and alarming. A whopping 59% of the workforce, roughly 23.4 million working adults, struggle to perform all 20 digital tasks considered essential for work. These tasks, identified by industry and government, include basic skills such as using online collaboration tools, accessing digital pay information, setting privacy controls, and updating software.

59% of the workforce, roughly 23.4 million working adults, struggle to perform all 20 digital tasks considered essential for work.

Around 8% of the workforce, approximately 3.2 million people, cannot perform any of the 20 essential tasks. This group, often unemployed, impaired, or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, is severely disadvantaged in securing jobs and participating actively in society due to their digital deficiencies.

The most challenging areas for people are maintaining online safety and legality and leveraging digital tools to solve problems and enhance productivity. For instance, over a quarter of the workforce can't correctly set privacy and marketing settings on social media. And 35% cannot use digital tools to boost personal or organisational productivity.

Cybersecurity and digital productivity are non-negotiable business capabilities in today's digital economy. Yet, the data uncovers gaping holes among employees.

Digital skills vary dramatically across industry sectors. Construction needs to catch up, with only 25% able to complete all essential tasks. Even in the technology industry, viewed as digitally fluent, 33% lack full competency. Significant skills gaps exist in every UK region and age group.

The economic and social toll of this deficit is staggering:

  • £12.8 billion in lost GDP per year currently, projected to skyrocket to £63 billion per year by 2030.
  • £145 billion in lost cumulative GDP growth from 2018-2028.
  • £5.69 billion in lost wages for UK workers.
  • 39% of businesses fell victim to a cyber breach in 2022.
  • 70% of digital transformation projects fail due to workforce incapability.
  • 5.6 million job vacancies remain unfilled, partly due to gaps in digital skills.
  • Millions struggle to access cheaper goods, public services, and essential tools like online banking.

This data underscores the vast extent of digital exclusion across the UK workforce and its repercussions: hampered economic growth, vulnerable businesses, unfilled jobs, and diminished individual livelihoods.

Empowering people with essential digital skills paves the way for individual prosperity, bolsters business resilience and productivity, eases skills shortages and mitigates digital threats. The social and economic case for action is compelling.

A Blueprint to Arm the UK Workforce with Digital Essentials

The blueprint zeroes in on three interconnected areas that demand coordinated action from government, industry, and society:

1. Government-Led National Digital Skills Strategy

In close collaboration with UK businesses, the government must spearhead the creation and execution of a national strategy to swiftly upskill millions of working adults with essential digital skills.

Recommended actions include:

Setting a time-bound national goal for complete workforce digital capability, against which collective progress can be tracked

Adopting the existing Essential Digital Skills Framework as the official standard for the skills agreed upon by government and industry as necessary for work

  • Significantly enhancing the visibility of national skills gap data to drive change.

  • Leveraging the government's considerable convening power to rally UK employers to commit to training their workforces

  • Creating training resources and incentives aligned to the Essential Skills Framework that simplifies the process for employers to enhance their employees' digital skills

  • Establishing governance for coordinated delivery, monitoring progress, and refining the approach.

2. UK Business: A Call to Action

As major employers, businesses are uniquely positioned to upskill the workforce. However, many are oblivious to their organisations' skills gaps or aren't actively helping employees bridge them.

The blueprint issues a resounding call for every UK employer to:

  • Use the common language of the Essential Digital Skills Framework to incorporate skills enhancement into workforce strategies.

  • Assess their current workforce capabilities using the framework to identify skills gaps.

  • Actively assist employees in developing those essential digital skills.

  • Supporting this will necessitate sharing best practices between businesses, incentivising training, and providing user-friendly training resources.

3. A Culture Shift Led by All

Understanding what best motivates people to develop their digital skills proactively is crucial. Gathering evidence on how to ignite this cultural shift is vital.

Recommended focus areas include:

  • Commissioning behavioural science research into effective methods for motivating digital skills development

  • Coordinating messaging across sectors that clearly communicates the benefits and inspires people to enhance their digital knowledge

  • Making it easy for motivated individuals to assess their starting point and advance their skills through curated learning pathways

  • Influencing the prevailing culture to make digital upskilling aspirational and beneficial will supercharge the impact of practical training initiatives.

Delivery Demands Cross-Sector Collaboration

No single group – government, business, or civil society alone – can address the digital skills gap at the required speed and scale. Practical cooperation between these domains will be the bedrock of success.

The blueprint provides a focal point for deliberate, targeted action by stakeholders across government departments, industry bodies, employers of all sizes and civil society organisations.

But this cannot be a linear plan. Dynamic review and refinement will be essential as technology, work, and society continue to evolve rapidly. Monitoring impacts, learning lessons and pivoting approaches based on evidence will be critical, too.

Integrating the blueprint's recommendations into existing and emerging policies and programmes across public and private spheres offers the chance to gain momentum quickly. A systemic commitment to skills enhancement and doing so collaboratively will be crucial.

The Reward: A Digitally Skilled and Confident UK Workforce

The goal is clear: a nation where every individual, regardless of age, background or role, possesses the essential digital skills, mindset and motivation to confidently utilise technology at work, at home and in society.

The blueprint offers a resounding call for the UK to unite and realise this vision.

The collective effort required is substantial. But the benefits make coordinated action both morally and economically essential.

Equipping people with digital fundamentals unleashes individual potential and fortifies business resilience. It fosters more inclusive labour markets, unlocks prosperity for millions and turbocharges economic productivity. And it solidifies the UK's position as a global technology leader.

The gap is vast, and millions risk being left behind, but this blueprint signposts a way forward to bridge the UK's digital divide.

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