In the digital age, there is no standing still. As technological progress marches ahead, businesses must keep step or risk being swept into obscurity. A new report from the Open University suggests this forward march could end up being more of a mad scramble, though, if action is not taken soon.
According to Bridging the Digital Divide, published at the end of June, as many as nine in 10 organisations across Great Britain currently lack the necessary digital skills – ranging from cyber security and the cloud to data management and social media.
Skills gaps as they widen can impact productivity heavily, with 56% of businesses saying this has already happened and half expecting profitability to be impacted within five years if the situation is not rectified. As the landscape transforms, jobs will transform with them and up to 12 million employees could be impacted by changing roles or even redundancies if they are ill-equipped for the new world.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) has had its eyes on the gap for some time and is working hard to push its members to fully commit to going digital before it’s too late.
Chair Mike Cherry says: “There is a digital skills gap among small businesses – 26% of small business owners report lacking confidence in their basic digital skills and 22% believe a lack of basic digital skills among their staff is holding them back from increasing their digital and online presence.
“Research suggests that digital transformation can make every business in every sector more productive, and most businesses can’t afford to miss out. Despite clear evidence that better digital capability spurs growth, a quarter of small firms do not consider digital skills to be important to the growth of their business.
“Despite business owners’ confidence in their own basic digital skills, 22% believe a lack of basic digital skills among their staff is preventing them from being more digital. Investment in digital skills training and ICT training, for staff and the business owner, is low. Issues related to time, resource and cost are the most common barriers to training.”
According to Cherry, the digital skills gap is part of a wider skills crisis hitting small firms, with a third (30%) of small businesses in England struggling to find workers to fill roles because of acute skills shortages.
Recruitment is likely to be a crucial fix at this vital juncture. Business constraints may prevent time-consuming training sessions for existing staff who still must perform day-to-day functions, and so hiring in those missing skills could be key to plug the gap.
Mike Gilligan, director of print recruiter Mercury Search & Selection, says: “Looking at the print industry, there has been a big shift where it is now seen as one channel among many. This means a shift in mindset running deeper through companies, so rather than just studio people and customer-facing staff understanding digital platforms, it is now prevalent right through the organisation.
“Many companies are relying on software suppliers to provide the training on these cross-platform digital solutions. For those looking to expand and hire new staff, this means there is a very specific sector-driven talent pool. This can lead to something of a battle for the available talent.
“For printers looking to build a digital savvy workforce, I would suggest that it comes first and foremost from a sense of what the company is and does. Of course, finding staff with broad digital skills and understanding from computer science or coding backgrounds could give the edge and speed up the process.”
Recruiting is, however, just one measure and potentially a short-term one. If print businesses hope to modernise and outlast the shifting tide of Brexit (and further economic unrest around the world), they may have to look inward and bite the bullet on refining their own staff, as well as outward to the systemic problems holding the sector back.
“The issues of acquiring the right talent and then continuing to develop those in the data and marketing industry is one of the most important issues we face,” says DMA head of insight Tim Bond. “Addressing these issues more widely will be essential to the professionalisation and future growth of our industry.
“More young people need to be made aware of what our industry can offer them, as well as the qualifications and skills that will help them carve out a successful career in data and marketing.
“We also need to align employer expectations more closely with the skills that young and inexperienced candidates are developing in the education system.”
Reluctance is rife throughout the UK, with the Open University reporting that 55% of organisations believe hiring new workers is cheaper than investing in training, and 64% of employers are of the belief their organisations do not have plans to upskill or retrain existing staff to combat digital shortages.
BPIF Training managing director Karly Lattimore says: “Skills availability is a key concern for our members. Recruiting in skills is difficult, so internal training and development also need to form an important part of the solution.
“For existing staff, the key is to identify the training needed. Individuals could be at different stages, so it is important to map their needs against the business needs and develop training programmes to address the gap.
“Everybody needs digital skills today, from the basic digital literacy required to participate in the digital economy to the advanced skills required to shape its future. Closing the digital skills deficit is essential if both young entrants and the existing workforce are to fill rapidly changing jobs across the economy, the majority of which will require digital skills.
“To achieve this, organisations need to think ahead and be proactive.”
What firms need to do for the technology of the future
Digital skills lead, The Open University
The digital revolution is here and understandably employers are determined to seize the opportunities that arise from these new technologies. Yet in the face of this rapid rate of change, nine in 10 organisations are already experiencing a digital skills shortage.
They are finding that this lack of digital talent is impacting productivity. Without investment in training, many expect it to impact their ability to introduce or adapt to new digital technologies in the future, which could ultimately make them less competitive and profitable.
The skills gap is only set to widen. Our report suggests that as many as 12 million jobs across the UK could be affected in the next five years, either changing significantly or becoming redundant altogether. This leaves employers in desperate need of digital skills, with those related to cyber security, integrating new technologies and the development and management of cloud-based digital infrastructure in shortest supply.
Unfortunately, as it currently stands, the workplace is not developing individuals with these skillsets naturally, and additional support is required.
This is why the government is playing an active role in upskilling the workforce, with building digital skills a key focus of its industrial strategy. This is manifesting through initiatives such as the Institute of Coding and the Apprenticeship Levy, which was designed to encourage organisations in England to invest in education and training.
Most employers appreciate that lifelong learning will become the most appropriate solution to the pace of digital development, and many are starting to invest more – 27% have redirected their training budgets towards digital skills in the past year. It is crucial this trend continues so that organisations have access to the skills they need and are able to remain efficient, productive and competitive as the business environment around them evolves.
How has the need for digital skills affected your business?
Managing director, First Move Direct Marketing
When we have been recruiting, we have tried to find people from the off who have the skills we need. However, we have to do so with the awareness that it is possibly going to be unlikely. On those occasions, we have to give on-the-job training, but we tend to hire people as long as they have the core attributes we can build on. There are a lot of different RIPs and data solutions to handle these days. We endeavour to give in-house training to build our skill base, but we do sometimes send people out on residential training, too.
Managing director, KCS Print
Being traditionally web litho, we were more old-fashioned and did not do the data side of things, but that has changed as we look towards productivity, data capture and barcoding. When we recruit, it tends to be younger people who have the digital skills without the mechanical know-how and problem-solving skills, and older people are the reverse. We tend to hire those with mechanical skills and train them in digital as it is more prescriptive, but problem-solving is a mindset, although I suppose there is a fear factor among more experienced workers when it comes to digital.
Joint managing director, Glossop Cartons
Most people these days are quite computer-literate – especially among the younger generation. However, the digital skills gap affects all companies. We are more reliant on MIS for everything from sales to goods in and plate scanning. Everything used to be a paper system but now it’s digital. We work to train people who are not used to that through talks and demonstrations. Print has to up its game by working with local education facilities to be an attractive career option so young people will train up in the skills that we need.