Better definition needed around digital skills

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Better definition needed around digital skillsLast week saw the release of a report on digital skills by the Commons Science and Technology Committee. The essence of the report was that in the UK, we simply don’t have enough people with digital skills. But there’s better definition needed around digital skills before we can make sense of such information.

A BBC article gave an overview of the report. This article cited various statistics about shortfalls taken from the report.

One of the issues this report shows is the need for a much tighter definition when we’re talking about highly complicated and technical subjects. Whilst the article, and the report on which it’s based, contain a definition of ‘digital skills’, this is somewhat confused and the result is that the argument is almost lost[1]. The lack of guidance in the report stems from a lack of clarity in the definition.

TimelessTime’s experience is more defined.

Better Definition Needed Around Digital Skills

Where the term ‘digital skills’ is applied to workers in general, we’d agree with the report’s definition that someone with digital skills should be able “to navigate knowingly through the negative and positive elements of online activity and make informed choices about the content and services they use”.

This definition is appropriate when applied to jobs like accountant, marketer and telecoms consultant. Today, each needs to be able to consult online references and make use of online tools. Where such trades used telephone, calculator and pen twenty years ago, today it’s Internet resources, software tools and the Office suite.

Skills Gaps

As consultants who engages with firms in supplying services in recruitment and general HR, we’d assert that the problem is not digital skills, but core skills like science, English and maths that are missing. Managers lament that there are just not enough good candidates and employees who excel and no amount of digital skills training will overcome that.

Recent selection of accountants illustrates this point. In tests developed by TimelessTime for those accountants, candidates were invited to say how they’d categorise invoices for taxation. Many couldn’t – they didn’t know how to determine what VAT to charge inside and outside the EU. And they didn’t understand that there are different treatments that depend on where the services were performed. These are fundamental questions that any accountant dealing with VAT should know – certainly they should understand the concepts and know where to look for the detail.

Indeed, one could argue that it’s those very digital skills that cause the problem – since many people today rely on the hard coding of knowledge in machines such that jobholders don’t need to know. Many of the accounts candidates said that they’d expect their Sage accounts package to direct them in what to do. It’s true that in the future, jobs will be de-skilled such that operatives will be given no options, but today managers still need their staff to know. Few businesses are completely automated such that operators of software have absolutely no need to understand what’s happening inside the machine.

So hiring managers still need skills and knowledge and that’s the central issue common across all jobs. After all, digital skills can be learned – it’s more problematic when workers turn up to do a job without the ability to string good quality sentences together in support of an argument or do arithmetic and descriptive statistics. Core skills and knowledge for jobs are much more difficult to learn on the job than digital skills.

Dearth of Software Engineers

The second major issue with the BBC article (and the Commons report on which it’s based) is that it suggests that digital skills mean the ability to “code or create software”.

It’s clearly absurd to believe that every school, college, apprenticeship and university leaver can code. That’s just not needed. Clearly there’s better definition needed around digital skills.

Certainly TimelessTime’s experience is that there is a dearth of software engineers. One must again be specific. There’s a glut of those leaving university and college with digital skills that allow the development of a website using standard formats. But the story is very different when looking for engineers able to elicit requirements, architect, design, code, test and implement complex software systems in domains like retail, finance and transportation.

For software engineers, salaries reflect scarcity and range from about £45k to £90k.

The UK is also benefitting here from immigration. In recent searches, TimelessTime has seen a split in candidates, with around 30% British nationals, 50% from other EU countries and around 20% working in the UK on a Tier 2 immigration visa. Tier 2 visas are available to those from countries such as India and Pakistan working in areas of scarce skills.

The suggestion here is that the UK has to rely hugely on immigration both from the EU and from non-EU countries to support its digital economy.

In Conclusion

The BBC article and the committee report centre on general digital skills in the working population. Certainly every person going through school, college, apprenticeship and university must be fluent in accessing information. But they must also be strong in the core subjects of their chosen career. Whilst in the long run automation will reduce the need for workers to understand what machines are doing, most managers still want people to be able, metaphorically, to add up when the calculator batteries give out. Most managers expect workers to be able to know when arguments are about right, even if they rely on machines to add numbers after the decimal point.

As to more specific digital skills, the picture is mixed.

As a recruiter on behalf of clients in the tech world, we find that there is certainly huge need for highly trained, highly skilled and knowledgeable software engineers. It’s difficult for SMEs to access such skills with such high market salaries. And if we leave the EU, managers will have to get used to sponsoring Tier 2’s if their software capability is to be sustained.

The Solution

So at the bottom of the digital skills range, staff need core skills, not just digital skills. In the mid of technician range, education is probably doing enough – there are enough folk who can build template websites. It’s at the top end that the impact is likely to be greatest in the coming years. Here UK needs to train more and fill more vacancies for software engineers from home grown talent.


[1] The Science and Technology Committee says there is no single definition but is generally understood to be the ability to use computers and digital devices to access the internet, the ability to code or create software and the ability to critically evaluate media, and “to navigate knowingly through the negative and positive elements of online activity and make informed choices about the content and services they use”. Source: BBC


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