As the digital revolution strides forward, there’s no denying it is transforming the way we live and work. When I want to speak to my family in another country, I no longer write a letter or pick up the phone, I ‘Facetime’ them.If I want to pay my electricity bill, I no longer write a cheque but open up my smartphone banking app. New developments in technology have revolutionised our interactions, but I find myself asking whether we can confidently say as individuals, businesses and as a society that everyone is making the most of these opportunities.
Right now, here in the UK, a ‘digital skills crisis’ is looming and without concerted investment in digital skills development at all levels of society, we may face falling behind.The result? Innovation and productivity are at stake as the digital skills gap is estimated to be costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP.
The nation’s focus on fast-growth, fin-tech start-ups, reliance on younger digitally-savvy employees, and complacent satisfaction with a basic level of digital inclusion risks creating a gap that leaves behind those just ‘getting by’ online but lacking the know-how and self-assurance to thrive in this new era.
As a business leader, it can be easy to overlook the need to nurture a broad range of evolving digital skills amongst your employees. Your business may seem to be ‘getting by’ in the new age of digital, but the truth is that the majority of UK enterprises are unprepared for the opportunities and challenges that the digital revolution brings. As a nation, we need to set our sights beyond the basic concept of Digital Inclusion and challenge ourselves to become fully Digitally Empowered. By this, I mean the digitally excluded become included, the included become enabled, and the enabled are able to continually unlock the potential of a rapidly evolving tech landscape.
With this as our aim, and with the support of a wide range of contributors from the business, technology and scale-up sectors, we have launched The Barclays Digital Development Index. The index seeks to understand how ready the UK workforce is for the digital economy compared with its international rivals. Digital readiness is a global, economic race and we need to know where we stand to be able to develop and succeed.
The picture for the UK
The good news is that the UK is performing well in terms of policies to encourage digital upskilling. However, when it comes to individuals’ assessment of their own skills, the UK trails major economic rivals India, China and the USA, coming in sixth place overall.
It is an altogether different picture for business investment; the UK falls behind in seventh place for vocational and workplace skills. While almost half (47%) of all UK businesses recognise that better digital skills would lead to a more productive workforce, annual investment in digital upskilling remains minimal at only £109 per employee. Moreover, only 38% of UK workers interviewed saidthat their employer offers training in digital skills; far lower than our economic competitors China, the US (48% in both) and India (67%).The two leading countries in the index, Estonia and South Korea, are particularly strong on vocational and workplace digital skills, proving that policy is not enough on its own to tackle the skills crisis and highlighting the important role the workplace and businesses have to play.
Perhaps the most concerning indicator is the fact that the UK ranks just seventh out of 10 for coding skills and content creation. This is a key indicator of the ability to be a ‘digital creator’ rather than just a ‘digital consumer’, posing questions about what impact this will have on the UK’s readiness to compete in the future digital economy.While coding appears to be gaining credence in the UK curriculum, we must continue the momentum behind developing these skills which are no longer skills of the future, but skills required in the here and now. India dominates the category for coding and content creation, producing almost 10 times as many school children with coding skills as the US; to ensure our workforce measures up to these emerging digital tigers, we must foster these skills from an early age.
Digital policy in the UK is at a critical moment, with the Government’s Digital Strategy expected in the coming months and the UK navigating its future outside of the European Union, the focus – more so than ever – is on ensuring the UK’s global competitiveness in the new digital economy. Individuals, businesses and government must coordinate to safeguard the UK’s position as a powerhouse of tech innovation.
But, while ‘Brexit’ continues to dominate headlines,we have to remember that the race to become the most digitally savvy economy is global and not confined to Europe. It is a race that will define how successful and prosperous we are for decades to come.
Ashok Vaswani is CEO of Barclays UK
Survey conducted for Barclays by Opinium Research in February 2016