The UK Digital Skills Gap

Demand is growing for candidates with advanced digital skills, with 60% of employers expecting demand to continue rising in the next 5 years. 

Research by the Learning and Work Institute (LWI) found that over one in three employers say they face a skills gap within their current workforce for advanced digital skills, while 41% have struggled to recruit workers with the advanced digital skills that they need.

The LWI is an independent policy research organisation that conducted research exploring digital skills and the future of the labour market in the UK.

Advanced digital skills are defined as ‘a good knowledge across a range of digital skills, as well as in-depth specialist knowledge in one or more area, such as computer aided design, coding, specialist digital software.’

Demand for Digital Skills

The TechNation 2021 report found that, despite the Covid pandemic, advertised tech jobs in the UK grew at 36% and the role of Software Developer was the most highly advertised in 2019 (based on Adzuna data). The top skills included in this broad job title were Java, C++, .net, JavaScript, SQL Python and AWS.

The median salary for digital tech roles within the UK is £39k compared to £30k for all roles.

While there is demand for advanced digital skills across all regions, unsurprisingly, London has both the highest level of demand both for basic and advanced digital skills, and the largest digital skills gaps.This reflects the capital’s thriving digital tech hub and the concentration of highly skilled technology jobs. 

Many employers already face significant digital skills gaps. Such skills gaps can have a significant impact on the growth and productivity of businesses; three in four (76%) businesses say that a lack of digital skills would affect the profitability of their business. 

UK Tech Pipeline

While demand for digital skills is set to increase rapidly, the pipeline of UK candidates with advanced digital skills at undergraduate and postgraduate level is also increasing. The number of people starting an undergraduate degree in Computer Science across the UK increased by 17% between 2014/15 and 2018/19, and on the back of this, the number of people starting a postgraduate degree increased by over half (55%). 

The increase at both undergraduate (25%) and postgraduate (69%) has been faster for female students.

There is also good news at A level with the growth of Computer Science nearly making up for the decline in the number of students taking ICT A level since 2015 and in 2019/2020 there is an increase in overall numbers.

However, this picture is worrying at GCSE level. The figures show a drop of 40% in the numbers studying for a qualification in either Computer Science or ICT since 2015.

This is the unintended consequence of the phasing out of the ICT exam and its replacement by the far more challenging Computer Science. Although the numbers of Computer Science GCSE entries have more than doubled, they are far from matching the decline in numbers taking ICT.

One of the reasons for this is the well documented lack of Computer Science teachers. Many schools are struggling to find the teachers needed for STEM subjects, and schools may not be keen to persuade students to enter an exam where getting a top grade will be hard.

The Computer Science GCSE may result in more of the advanced digital skills and software development knowledge which were not covered in the ICT course, but for employers looking to recruit people with a wide range of tech skills the GCSE figures are a concern.

The new T level courses currently being rolled out across England have been designed in partnership with employers as an alternative to A levels and also count towards UCAS points for entry to university. It is very early days but these new courses could help to bridge the skills gap.

The three T level courses include an industrial placement of at least 315 hours and include:

  • digital production, design and development (now available)
  • digital business services (starting September 2021)
  • digital support and services (starting September 2021)

Tech Talent Pool

Other factors affecting the overall size of the tech talent pool available to UK companies are: immigration of tech talent to the UK post Brexit; the EU settlement scheme following the end of EU freedom of movement; a lack of investment in training by employers and the impact of the Covid global pandemic.

All of these factors are significant and all have had an impact on the digital skills gap. What remains unchanged is the strong position of the top candidates with the in-demand data, cloud, programming, cybersecurity or AI skills.

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