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Digital skills at work – a neglected gap

Author: Daniel Clark

Published: 08 Apr 2021

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For some time now, there has been a steady stream of reports and publications which discuss the impact of changes in technology on skills required in the workplace and identify a “digital skills gap” in some form.

The most recent example is from the Learning & Work Institute. In my view, reports like this are helpful in highlighting the issue, although they have a tendency to be imprecise in using the term ‘digital skills’ and also focus on the implications for those in formal education. Implications for current workers are often overlooked, and, although they are very important, changes in formal education will take some years to filter through to the workplace.

As well as work on the general picture, there are of course studies specifically relating to accountants, and various aspects of our work, for example the recent Tech Faculty report on automation in finance functions. As part of my own research, I have been reviewing the extensive institutional and academic publications on this topic and am finding an almost universal consensus on three points, both in general and specifically in relation to accountants:

  1. Digital technology is fundamentally changing the skills required in many jobs, and this change is expected to accelerate;
  2. There is something of a “skills gap” between digital skills required now, let alone the future, and those currently available;
  3. Having digital skills leads to benefits both for the individual (income, progression etc.) and the organisations they work for.

These trends long predate the current pandemic, but are likely to only be accelerated by them.

So far, so clear, but in this context there is a set of findings from the latest Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index which I found startling. This is the largest-scale survey in the UK about digital skills so is worth paying attention to. On page 26, there are findings about how people have developed their digital skills over the past year. They add up to more than 100% so clearly respondents picked all options that applied. This shows that in the last year a total of 23% of respondents developed their digital skills “through work”. This is down from 34% in the prior year and significantly lagging those who were self-taught (80%) or learned from family (31%).

Now clearly, not everyone is in work, or perhaps has a job which requires many digital skills, but digging in to the breakdown on p.71 does not reassure us. If we look at managers, presumably a group in need of digital skills to be effective, we find that only 37% of higher managerial, 32% of intermediate managerial and 28% of junior managerial staff developed their digital skills through work. Worse, page 73 shows what proportion of respondents were encouraged to develop their digital skills by their employer. This amounts to 19% of higher managerial, 16% of intermediate managerial and 15% of junior managerial staff.

This is a broad-brush survey so it will be missing nuances. People mean different things by digital skills for a start. However, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, faced with the need to adapt and upskill in digital technologies, employees are largely being left to fend for themselves. Of course, there are many great examples of companies supplying upskilling programmes, as well as support such as mentoring and access to resources, but they seem to be very much in the minority.

So what can we take away from this? I think there are two clear messages to be drawn:

  • Despite the reports and rhetoric, many employers are not doing enough (or anything?) to encourage and support their staff to develop digital skills. This can take many different forms but without it, talk of innovation and digital transformation is likely to ring hollow.
  • Individual workers cannot wait for their employers to provide training or encouragement to improve digital skills. Fortunately, it has never been easier for individuals to access quality resources at low or no cost, just investing some time, or to invest financially in the various educational programmes available. This does require considering what your particular needs are - I have previously written about how this process can work. But it is likely the returns on these investments will be substantial.