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Digital skills

Digital disadvantage: barriers to digital skills and access

Close-up of a person working on a laptop. Their face cannot be seen.

This report is from a series of reports developed by Catch22 and Nominet to explore the barriers to digital skills and access for some of the most disadvantaged people in the UK. These insights will inform recommendations, which will in time support Catch22 and Nominet in developing a strategic partnership which tackles systemic inequality, whilst responding to grassroots need. We are making it available in the hope others can use the lessons, ideas and insights.

This first paper sets the scene for the proceeding papers, highlighting the exciting opportunities presented from the growing digital economy and the substantial barriers disadvantaged communities face in accessing these opportunities. This paper has been informed by a research review and interviews with 10 experts from leading organisations working in the field of digital and youth inclusion.

Why does this matter?

Research from The Learning and Work Institute shows that 92% of businesses state that a basic level of digital skills is important for employees in their organisation, and that four in five (82%) job vacancies require digital skills. As highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, access to digital devices and skills has become more crucial than ever for young people entering the job market, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.  

The paper identifies four types of barriers to digital opportunity:  

  • Digital access: The issue of digital exclusion in the UK has been further exposed by the global pandemic. A lack of appropriate technology and quality connectivity not only creates a fundamental barrier to digital inclusion but compounds existing inequalities by preventing access to economic opportunity. Without digital access, young people who are looking for employment are immediately placed at a massive disadvantage. 
  • Digital skills: Young people are often viewed as digital natives. While many feel comfortable with specific technologies and have high levels of confidence with specific platforms, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the digital skills needed to find employment. It is difficult for young people to move beyond ‘Foundation Level’ digital skills and develop more advanced ‘Digital Skills for Work’ (Lloyd’s, Essential Digital Skills Report). 
  • Core capabilities: The research identified that a lack of core capabilities, which present barriers to disadvantaged young people finding employment more broadly, often compound digital barriers to work, including the development of ‘Digital Skills for Work’. These ‘soft skills’ (such as the ability to be creative, to analyse, to make mistakes and ask questions) are often considered employers as equally or more important than ‘hard skills’.  
  • Digital lived experience: There is limited research looking at how young people’s lived experience of the digital world impacts on their desire to acquire new digital skills, but substantial research to suggest that young people’s experience of the digital world is not always a positive one and that it is often negatively framed. The paper suggests that disadvantaged and marginalised groups’ lived experience of the digital world might impact on their desire and ability to acquire digital skills. 

The paper shows that digital disadvantage reinforces and exacerbates the barriers for disadvantaged young people trying to move into work. The next three papers will build on this context to address who the groups most impacted are, how to overcome the identified barriers and who is responsible for change?    

The findings were shared by Charlotte Turner and Mark Newby from Bean Research, during a virtual event. They were also joined by a panel of young speakers who shared their experiences of some of the issues highlighted in the paper.