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Digital skills

Digital skills and reskilling: an opportunity to address inequality

A young man sits at a desk working on his laptop.

Economic recovery offers a fresh opportunity to address inequality; we can bridge the digital skills gap whilst supporting low-income earners to build their future, proposes Kat Dixon, Catch22’s former Head of Partnerships in this new blog.

Since the pandemic hit, our lives and needs have shifted from the high street to laptop, and UK labour needs have shifted with it; a rising demand in digital skills.

This is no new trend. Researchers have been predicting a rise of AI and automation, tech-based solutions, and shifts in labour-market demand for at least ten years, and some of these changes were already playing out.

But, the pandemic has skewed labour market demands in specific sectors (think the disproportionate effect on retail, hospitality, healthcare) and some are arguing that many ‘low-skilled’ jobs may not return. What’s worrying is that this acceleration of an existing trend could easily lead to a rise in underemployment, which tends to hit low-income families hardest.

Like any technological innovation, how automation is adopted will decide if it opens up opportunity for new roles or results in more redundancies. And longer term, it may be that the risk of concentrated markets is a bigger risk to worker rights than automation.

A spotlight on inequality

Within these long-term shifts, the acceleration of the pandemic has thrown a spotlight on two key areas where inequality is rife: digital reskilling and digital inclusion.

And this spotlight gives us an opportunity to rethink how we address inequality. As we see a shift in how we shop, work and talk to our loved ones, we have an opportunity to guide that shift in a way that builds a fairer society.

If we can give people who are struggling genuine opportunities to re-skill and up-skill, we can address labour skills shortages whilst addressing inequality at the same time.

The digital skills shortage

DCMS research from 2019 shows that 75% of all jobs require basic digital skills and the UK Employer Skills Survey showed 30% of skills-shortage vacancies involved a lack of digital skills.

The phrase ‘digital skills’ covers a broad range of concepts, somewhat distilled by the government’s Essential Digital Skills Framework – there’s a huge difference between the skills needed to become a Cloud Technician and the skills needed to work inventory software in a warehouse.

What is clear is that basic digital skills are one of the most transferable skills across industries. If you can email photos via a smartphone, you can use that skill for surveying, inventory, marketing, not to mention keeping in touch with your family and interacting with your GP. And these basic skills are not a given. A 2019 Ipsos Mori survey found that only 79% of people in the UK have basic digital skills, and these stats are in higher in the South and London compared to Northern areas.

The other big need is digital skills for digital or ‘techy’ jobs. This might be a job like a Network Engineer, Infrastructure Technician or a Social Media Manager, and the demand for these is increasing too. Often these roles are in tech companies but they could be in any sector; large companies are known to build in-house capabilities even for IT needs with a hefty price tag (such as Data Analytics) while small to medium businesses tend to outsource to agencies for this need.

Access to digital skills and tech-enabled jobs

The problem with a lot of these techy jobs is knowledge and access. We know roughly what a nurse or a teacher does, but how many of us know what it takes to be a Cloud Technician? And once you know what a job is, how do you get to it?

Young applicants struggle to make sense of the jargon, and we know they’re less likely to apply for a company they’ve never heard of, reducing the applicant pool for many good employers.

Lots of people don’t even apply for apprentice roles; the application process is long, the wages can seem low if you don’t know what progression routes are available, and if you’re searching online, it can seem like you need a ton of skills and experience even to apply.

But, it turns out, this simply isn’t true. At Catch22, we run programmes that support people with social barriers to work discover and access digital jobs and apprenticeships (social barriers could be poor education, mental health challenges, low income, disabilities and others). We find that many employers hiring for digital roles value attitude and potential far more than the skills on their CV. This is especially true for apprenticeships, where apprentices learn on the job.

Creating a bridge to digital skills

In our digital skills programmes (funded and supported by amazing partners like Microsoft, Salesforce and Google), we use brands young people recognise to get them interested. Whether it’s skills like customer service, making a LinkedIn profile or digital marketing, these skills are transferable skills that can help someone over a lifetime, not just in the short term.

Since the pandemic hit, we’ve seen a dip in the numbers of apprentice starting jobs. This makes sense, considering the uncertainty of employers in the economic climate. But longer-term, we will need SMEs and large employers to start recruiting again, and this presents a new opportunity to support people with poor prospects thrive.

We need a focused drive to address our skills shortage in the UK economy, and we have an opportunity to up-skill people who will see huge benefits to them and their families. This is a moment to address inequality as the UK recovers.

How we can open up digital skills and jobs

  • Recruit for diversity: Training programmes need to actively recruit and support underrepresented groups. The new government Reskilling Bootcamp schemes have been criticised for funding male-dominated sectors and not giving enough opportunity to women. And young black man in London is three times more likely to be unemployed than a young white man. Lack of diversity in employment is caused by structural inequalities with huge complexities, but a step we can take is to actively recruit people who we know are disadvantaged in the job market. At Catch22 we target our digital programmes with 50% female participants (no easy challenge) and in The Social Switch Project, 81% of our participants learning digital skills identify as BAME. We need proactive recruitment of underrepresented groups to to tackle inequality head on.
  • Incentivise employers to create entry-level jobs: The UK has been reliant on migrant workers to fill our skills shortages and as the Brexit deal challenges qualifications transfer, we’ll need to look to our existing workforce to fill those gaps. The government has been introducing flexibility in levy transfer and extending employer incentives, but these need to go further, and focus on entry-level opportunities, disincentivising employers from only hiring skilled workers in mature roles.
  • Create focused retraining programmes that are genuinely accessible: 1 in 6 adults in England have the reading skills of a 5-7 year old. Studies show that when you’re worried about money, your cognitive function decreases. Many of us are working from home and struggling to concentrate. This is ten-fold if you’re living in a YMCA, had a bad time at school and your training course is pitched at someone with degree-level reading skills. We need programmes that genuinely take on board accessibility, and make meaningful adjustments to open up opportunity.
  • Realise that making online training free is not enough. It’s hard enough to concentrate on e-learning when you’re warm, comfortable and your computer works. Imagine doing it on a phone that you’re sharing with your kids, in a cramped flat, whilst worrying about topping up the gas meter. It’s wonderful that companies are making digital courses free, but we have a glut of free online learning and not enough ways to help people use it. These learning platforms only work for everyone when they can be adjusted for educational needs and are used in parallel with specialist support to overcome hurdles.
  • Create programmes that build a genuine roadmap. Each person on a Catch22 programme co-creates a set of goals they want to achieve and barriers they need to overcome – whether it’s mental health, basic skills, housing or caring responsibilities. In our digital programmes, we have experts guiding them through online training programmes and applications, whilst boosting their confidence. Without this kind of support, how will each individual know which training is worth sinking time and energy into? Or where to go next?
  • Provide access to devices and wifi: Two million households don’t have regular access to the internet and in our COVID response work we partnered up with Raspberry Pi, Microsoft and the National Lottery Community Fund to get people laptops and tablets. Without access to hardware and connectivity, the ability to address inequality will always be stilted. Campaigns like devicesdotnow and Project Reboot are doing great work to address this divide, but there’s still more to be done.

As a country, we’re facing great hardship and uncertainty, but we’re also facing a moment of great opportunity. Together, we can address digital skills inequality and bridge the digital divide.

– Kat Dixon, Head of Partnerships