The future of work is digital, and the UK has some catching up to do if it aspires to a digitally capable workforce fit to meet that future. 

This was the predominant message from the first installment of the Digital Poverty and Inequalities Summit, hosted yesterday by the APPG for Digital Skills. Invited contributors included representatives from TechUK, FutureDotNow, Google, Harvey Nash Group, BT, City & Guilds, Community Trade Union, and Prospect. 

Despite encouraging figures indicating that there are 5.6 million more people with foundational digital skills as a result of upskilling during the pandemic, Lloyds Bank reports that 11.8 million (36%) of the workforce still lack Essential Digital Skills for Work. Thinking ahead, the digital workplace is changing more rapidly than ever before, rendering digital skills a constantly moving target. By some estimates (published by the Confederation of British Industry and McKinsey), 90 percent of the UK workforce will need to reskill by 2030. 

Several recommendations surfaced at the roundtable to address where there are important gaps:

  • Evidence

We need to understand more fully what working life looks like for adults in the UK today, as well as understanding the link between digital skills and all aspects of life (e.g. health, recidivism, and of course productivity), both on a personal and societal level. Questions were raised around the role of Government’s existing significant investment in the What Works Network to generate evidence-based insights about digital across sectors to enable more holistic policy social impact.

  • Education

The pathways between education and work are not adequately preparing young people for a digital workplace. Formal education needs a stronger emphasis on digital skills across the whole curriculum, not just IT, informed by the needs of the employment market; and skills training needs to be available for the many people who do not pursue university education, including on-the-job training for both younger and older employees.

  • Lifelong inclusion

People constantly need new skills to be able to engage with a changing digital world. One of the places where people have the highest exposure to digital skills is in the workplace, on the job. When people fall out of employment or retire, their skills can deteriorate, so there needs to be provision for free, lifelong learning at different life stages and circumstances.

  • Prioritisation from the top

Digital skills delivery and digital skills policy is often fragmented across different sectors and at different levels (from the community to the national level). Digital capability needs to be a clear strategic national priority, communicated across government from the highest levels. As recommended by the House of Lords Covid-19 Select Committee, this should be led by the Cabinet Office and supported by respective departments, such as the Department for Education and HM Treasury to realise the benefits to UK PLC as well as for social and economic inclusion.

  • Signposting

Several speakers stated that the problem in delivering digital skills is not supply but demand. A range of digital skills training programmes exist — Learn My Way, the Lloyds Academy, Google Garage, iDEA, and the new skills boot camps were all mentioned — and one-to-one help exists in Online Centres across the country. But people often do not know where to go for help. There needs to be more cross-sector signposting of available skills resources and training for people at the first point of contact, when they need it, and follow through to make sure they can access them. The Government has a key role to play here, as it manages many of the most important channels to the most vulnerable people, across health, education and housing, for example. (Learn more about how the Digital Poverty Alliance Community Board aims to support this.) 

  • Motivation and skills go hand-in-hand

Both capability and motivation are determinants of digital poverty, and they are very closely linked. As Liz Williams from FutureDotNow put it, “If the pandemic hasn’t motivated people, what’s it going to take?” Several speakers highlighted how a lack of exposure, confusion regarding the language we use to talk about digital skills and the digital world, and/or a lack of confidence can be de-motivating for people in acquiring digital skills. We need to tackle motivation alongside skills from education to employment and beyond.

Although it is impossible to cover the full range of issues relevant to digital skills in the workplace in just one roundtable discussion, there were some important themes missing from the conversation.

  • Locating responsibility for digital skills

Discussions of digital skills in the workplace tend to take the expectations of employers and industry as the default perspective. The question therefore often starts from the same premise. What do employers need? What does the economy need? 

Of course, this is an important perspective because people do need skills that are required in the job market. However, some roundtable participants acknowledged the risk of this default point-of-view: it ignores users’ (people’s) experiences. And in doing so, it individualises the ‘problem’ of digital skills — situating the responsibility for digital skills on the individual rather than placing an equal burden on the system. What is the responsibility of the job market, or even the designers and developers of technologies and digital systems themselves? When digital platforms and technologies are not built to be user-friendly for marginalised users (such as disabled people, people who speak English as a second language, people who have left education, or lack textual literacy), the experience of being online can be disheartening and de-motivating, if not discriminatory.

In research that colleagues and I conducted in public libraries, we found that people face many simple digital barriers in accessing jobs that otherwise require minimal digital skills. For example, the proliferation of online-only job applications for low-paid, hourly work blocks many digitally excluded people from even applying,  and it may also be de-motivating for people to consider acquiring any further digital skills. 

Therefore, additional important questions should include: whose responsibility are digital skills and literacy, and how can the job market be made less alienating for people experiencing digital exclusion? This is a shared responsibility across Government, business, and the tech sector.

  • Critical and abstract thinking skills

In our increasingly complex digital world, many of the digital skills needed to thrive not only in the workplace but in everyday life are not technical skills; they are critical thinking and abstract problem solving skills. And they diverge in important ways from the problem solving skills outlined in the Essential Digital Skills framework. 

Ofcom has identified some of these issues, reporting that people are increasingly unlikely to validate online information sources, have limited understanding of the ways companies collect and use personal data, and fail to accurately identify paid-for online advertising. The Me and My Big Data project found that many people in the UK lack data literacy and feel disempowered in the way their data is extracted and used. And in my own research, I have found that digitally excluded users often struggle most with constructing an abstract set of steps in their mind to get to a digital end-goal. Although they may have basic competencies, like logging into Wifi, this abstract thinking is a key digital barrier.

Therefore, other important questions should be: how can we cultivate both technical and critical thinking skills among even the most basic digital technology users? Can/should the digital world be designed to require less abstract thinking in the interest of becoming more inclusive?

  • Public participation

Both of these themes point to the need for greater public participation in the design of the digital workplace, digital technologies and systems, and digital skills learning programmes. There is a notable lack of lived experience perspectives — the views of ordinary people experiencing compound forms of inequality — in high level conversations about digital skills.Tackling the motivation side of the capability equation will involve not only identifying what skills people need, but crucially what skills they want. We need diverse voices in the room from, for instance, the disabled community, in order to meet people’s needs first.

The recommendations from the roundtables will inform a forthcoming Digital Poverty Evidence Review 2022 for the Digital Poverty Alliance, in which I will explore these further themes in greater depth, drawing on evidence from academia, industry, Government and the third sector. Read the interim report here.

If you have a single suggestion about what Government could do that would make a difference in the area of digital capability, e-mail: digitalskillsappg@connectpa.co.uk.

This roundtable was hosted by the APPG for Digital Skills, in collaboration with the APPG Data Poverty, APPG PICTFOR and supported by the Digital Poverty Alliance. A recording of the session can be found at the following link and we encourage you to share it on any relevant channels: https://youtu.be/FaER5GjnM3o

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