March 2018 by Ji Li, published on New Statesman Skills Spotlight

Plugging the UK’s digital skills gap is a social and economic imperative, according to Ji Li, managing director of Plum Innovations

There will come a time when the distinction between digital skills
and skills in general ceases to be necessary. That there is some caginess from sections of the public about this rate of digitisation is understandable. However, we should view new technology through the lens of opportunity rather than as a signpost for obsolescence. It must be a priority for the nation, therefore, to both equip the next generation of youngsters with the skills they need to stay abreast of
technological advances, through adaptive teaching techniques; and to upskill members of the current workforce so that they can make the most of new
developments, rather than simply seeing them as an inconvenience.

Achieving both of these aims can only be beneficial to the overall UK economy.
Consider, for example, that research by Approved Index last year found that around 2m small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UK did not have an online presence at all. A YouGov study, meanwhile, revealed that the average UK household contains seven devices connected to the internet. In almost every industry, being armed with the ability to navigate the web opens up new customer avenues down which to sell; and being able to harness technology effectively can speed up the delivery of services. In a modern culture that craves convenience, these are valuable skills indeed. The UK’s future strategy, then, must operate on an axis which appreciates people young and old.

For the younger generation, government, industry and academia must overlap. Caroline Wright, director general of the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA), says that integrating technology in the classroom at the earliest possible stage can help to engage students with their learning, whatever the subject, and acclimatise them sooner, even at primary school age, to the increasingly digital nature of work. She explains: “BESA’s research shows that the use of IT in the classroom has evolved since we started using technology en masse in the early 1990s. Before, children would tend to be exposed to IT through the use of
interactive whiteboards, but we’ve seen that they now interact more on tablets and laptops, therefore acquiring key digital skills that have become crucial as we advance in the 21st century.”

Nicholas Prockter, head of lower school at Harrow International School in Bangkok adds: “Over the next 20 years the business world will change, so a school curriculum needs to teach our young people to be global, digital citizens who are adaptable and can communicate confidently using technology.” Still, not all digital upskilling needs to be dramatically complex. Even a small amount of modernisation can go a long
way. UCL’s Professor Rose Luckin says: “Not everyone needs to be able to code,
but most people must know how to use digital technologies effectively in the workplace and in life.”

For the current workforce, it is important that companies do not take the position that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Too often, companies allow their employee skill-base to plateau. It is understandable that during a recession companies might hesitate to invest in further training, but really we should be encouraging them to head for the eye of the storm. A short-term cost in digital training for staff will repay itself tenfold later down the line.

Ultimately, at Plum Innovations, we don’t want IT or digital issues confined to maintenance. We want them to think of them as a glorious chance to improve.

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