Is the digital skills gap holding print back?

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, April 24, 2017

Earlier this month the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) released its latest research into the UK’s Digital Economy, which highlighted the need for more digital and data skills among SMEs in the services and manufacturing sectors.

1,465 firms were surveyed, with more than one in five (21%) saying they are facing a significant shortage of digital skills in their workforce, 52% facing a slight shortage, and 3% facing a critical shortage.

The BCC says a lack of digital skills can hamper productivity due to factors such as increased workloads on existing staff, higher operating costs and difficulties in meeting customer requirements.

This is problematic in print because the industry is becoming ever more digitally focused, not just in the day-to-day operation of computers for carrying out basic tasks but also for managing customer data, carrying out pre-press operations or maintaining social media accounts.

DMA deputy chair Caroline Worboys believes that businesses will struggle to survive without digital skills of some kind.

“Everything is digital and organisations that weren’t traditionally digitally focused are having to become digitally focused now,” she says.

BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold, who attributes the skills shortages to demand for digital expertise outstripping supply, believes it is an oversimplification to say that print companies without a high level of digital skills will not survive.

“Nevertheless, the trends are clear and pretty much all technology now relies on digital tech to operate,” he says.

“The requirement that printers can engage with clients to discuss the best way to meet their needs also increasingly requires an understanding of how all communication channels can be best used, and how data, demographics and technology can be used to improve effectiveness.”

The specific digital skills that the average printer may need can vary depending on their markets, the needs of their clients and their plans for the future. But one element that is becoming increasingly important across the board is data skills.

Ensuring sensitive customer data is secure is crucial and, accordingly, there is more and more demand for skilled data experts, particularly as the focus on this area increases with the impending introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018.

This EU legislation, which is set to replace the UK Data Protection Act 1998, is expected to have significant implications and many printers are already preparing for the changes.

“Companies are using GDPR to get their house in order but that means they need more skills to identify where the data came from, how it has been used and whether they can answer customers’ questions about it,” says Worboys.

Darren Crawford, managing director of creative and data insight business GI Red, says his company is already on the case.

“We’ve done a great deal in this sensitive and important area and are using a mixture of in-house resource supported with external legal help.”

But data is not the only digital area where skills are sometimes lacking in print.

“I think the word digital in the print world means Indigo, NexPress, Ricoh – it doesn’t mean internet,” says Asif Choudry, sales and marketing director at print and marketing services firm Resource.

“That’s a generational thing but until that changes it’s going to be a major factor.”

He adds: “I think print struggles to find highly digitally skilled people because they want to work in digital agencies.”

With an agency type feel of its own, Resource may not struggle to find digitally savvy talent as much as a more traditional printer might, but it will still headhunt skilled data specialists or coders, who can be hard to come across.

And almost everybody working at Resource requires some level of digital knowledge, says Choudry.

“Most people have got to go onto live data capture so they need to log onto a PC just to sign on and sign off each job. And our press minders are using spectrophotometers and checking their quality on a computer screen.”

This is a scenario that is reflected in many print firms across the UK.

 “Data processing, artwork management and the ability to interface with customer systems is now mandatory for print businesses,” says Crawford.

“The ability to integrate and offer the right solutions to customers is intrinsically linked to modern digital skills.”

So what is being done to alleviate the digital skills shortage? In print terms at least, Jarrold says the BPIF’s trade apprenticeship programmes, which are focused on ensuring that learners have the skills their employers need across prepress, press and finishing, support the learning of digital skills where they are required to fulfil those roles.

The BPIF also offers the IASME accreditation, which enables companies to develop their data security awareness with a government approved certification, and the ECDL certification, which provides a framework for developing general IT skills.

On a more general level, Jarrold adds the government is trying to help by encouraging greater uptake of the STEM subjects at schools and colleges – laying the foundations for those students to go into industry and build their skills. But some observers believe that the government should also be offering other types of assistance.

“Some of the high-level digital skills businesses need will come from overseas, so a pragmatic immigration system needs to be in place to provide firms with access to the workers required to fill the gaps,” says British Chambers of Commerce director general Adam Marshall.

External training providers can also help but one of the main ways that printers can improve their digital skills is by offering frequent and relevant digital training in-house.

“A lot of people are very capable and just need a little bit of direction,” says Worboys.

“Some of the talent that is coming in is capable and ambitious to do rather a lot, they just need a bit of training and to be empowered,” she concludes. 


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