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Developing digital professionals in a changing world: a UK-wide approach

Digital skills were critically important even before Covid-19 struck. But, once the pandemic took hold and whole workforces shifted to remote working, there was no escaping just how important digital skills have become. However, there is a shortage of digital skills across the UK.

The Open University (OU) recently brought together a panel of internal experts to discuss the current digital landscape in a webinar called Developing digital professionals in a changing world: A UK-wide approach.

Edward Gamble, Managing Director at Worktime TV, hosted the webinar. He was joined by Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead, Rhys Griffiths, Business Relationship Manager (Wales), Suzanne McQuade, Business Relationships Manager (Scotland) and Dr Lynsey Quinn, Business Development in Ireland, all from the OU.

Accelerating change

Early on in the webinar, Jane referenced an OU report called Bridging the Digital Divide. This report says employers expect nearly two in five (37%) of jobs to change significantly or disappear altogether in the next five years as a result of digitisation. “However, all the indications are that Covid-19 has had an accelerator effect in terms of business change and transformation,” says Jane.

That means the pressure on skills is even more acute. Tech has supported every aspect of our lives over the last months and it’s increasingly being looked to as the enabler of a recovery.

Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead, The Open University

Organisations need to invest in the relevant skills or they risk falling behind. The Bridging the Digital Divide report found that nine in 10 organisations say a shortage of digital skills is impacting performance in terms of productivity, efficiency and competitiveness. Employers know they need to improve digital capabilities, but many are unsure how to do it, what training would help or which employees need it. As a result, they go for the short term option of buying in skills when they need them, rather than developing skills in house.

Investing in skills

Rather looking externally when there is a skills need, Rhys said he would like to see employers investing more in developing the capabilities of their existing workforce. “How can they grow existing talent to fill existing skills gaps?” he says. Rhys explained he spends a lot of time talking to employers about what technical skills are needed and how to improve digital literacy and help employees adapt to new, digital ways of working. “This is a rapidly growing sector – in Wales, the number of jobs that we’ve seen over the last decade has grown by 80%.”

The OU has been instrumental in helping organisations and individuals in all four nations to develop their digital capabilities. Digital apprenticeships, for example, have been a hugely successful way of boosting skills. Suzanne says there is huge demand in Scotland for digital skills and insufficient supply. But, she thinks there is an appetite for change and that significant progress has been made during the pandemic in terms of embracing technology and innovation. Now is the time, she says, to plan for business growth and to enhance workforce digital skills. “There’s a really good opportunity for organisations to aim to get on board with how they harness digital talent. We’ve seen unprecedented demand from furloughed workers, from those facing redundancies and from employers and organisations in developing digital skills.”

Lynsey says it’s the same in Northern Ireland – digital is proving to be vital to the economy. She says the OU has worked hard to widen access to education in Ireland and make learning accessible to all. And she says those organisations that had already invested in digital, prior to the pandemic, have been much better placed to meet new challenges. “Those businesses that were digital ready, they were prepared and they could respond quickly and could move their business strategies forward and adapt their business models. Agile responsiveness has never been more important.”

You can view the webinar here

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