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Digital Skills: What do businesses need to know?

Digital skills across the SW have undoubtedly increased in the past year. In some cases, the increase in skills and knowledge has - by necessity - been significant and at a very fast pace. Indeed, some businesses in our region would have gone under if they had not developed new digital skills to support rapid transition in their service or product delivery.

Cosmic's Joint CEO, Julie Hawker, shares these insights with us:

All of this is a very natural result of the pandemic, and more specifically, of the need for everyone to ‘stay at home’ wherever possible, including a large number of employees who were required to work at home and continue to do so. Many of those staff subjected to periods of furlough utilised their time in developing and enhancing their digital skills (according to the Lloyds Consumer Index 2021 report, 28% of people say they upskilled themselves for work-related reasons). The IT industry in the UK has created more than 100,000 jobs since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and more than 300,000 jobs over the last three years, according to the ONS.

But even before the C19 experience provided new and more urgent drivers for digital skills development, there was very clear evidence of the deficiency of digital skills in the region. The Heart of the South West Skills Strategy identified the strong demand for skills in data engineering, IT security, marketing research, app development and web development. (Source: https://skillslaunchpad.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Local-Skills-Report-Annex-A-Core-Indicators.pdf ) 

.More recently, in January of this year, the Tech South West annual survey report (again) identified the availability of talent as the biggest challenge to growth, and clear expectations that organisations will need to recruit more people than in 2020. The top tech trends as predicted by members were (in order): Online collaboration tools, AI, Augmented/ Virtual Reality, Cyber Security, Cloud Technology, Digital Transformation, Live Streaming, Data, Sustainable tech, Quantum Computing.

Changes in Digital behaviour

Across the UK in the last few months, 1.5 million more people started to use the internet, and in 2021 60% of the UK population are judged to have ‘high digital capability’. This target was set to be achieved by 2025 and so five years’ worth of progress was achieved in just one year. 72% of online consumers have brought from an online retailer that they hadn’t purchased from before, and 65% of people experienced their first video call. 91% of people plan to continue habits like these in the future. Source: 210513-lloyds-consumer-digital-index-2021-report.pdf (lloydsbank.com)

Time for new Digital Skills

Other reports are clearly highlighting the urgent need for investment and development in specific digital skills which will be needed as businesses develop their digital capabilities in the coming year. A clear example of this is Artificial Intelligence. LinkedIn Economic report 2020, identifies that the highest proportion of talent across the EU was in the UK (24%). Programming skills are important, but over 50% of AI professionals have non-engineering backgrounds and bring critical soft skills to the workplace. While a large proportion has studied Computer Science (35%), a significant portion (15%) has either a physical or social science degree. Soft skills like leadership, management, and public speaking are rising in importance for AI professionals: 30% of these workers list soft skills on their profiles. And once again there is a stark gender gap: only 16% of the AI professionals in the EU are female. As the demand for AI skills expands, there is a risk that it could perpetuate or further widen the gender and equity gap that already exists within the technology sector.

But there is a mismatch in the supply and demand required as we look further ahead to the future workforce; and some worrying evidence that the digital skills gap has some concerning trajectories. For example, the downward trend in young people studying IT subjects, evidenced by the 40% fall in student numbers since 2015. A report from the Learning and Work Institute (Disconnected – Exploring the Digital Skills Gap) found that only 48% of employers believe new recruits joining the workforce had the required advanced digital skillsets. Additionally, the gender imbalance is still a major concern with only 22% of students in IT GCSE being female (17% at A-Level ).
Source: https://learningandwork.org.uk/resources/research-and-reports/disconnected-exploring-the-digital-skills-gap/

Digital Skills in the South West

Further concern for the SW region is that there is a clear regional bias with concentration of digital skills in the cities, and the gender imbalance worsens too. In the South West, 6.6% of digital jobs in the tech sector are held by women, and alongside age (fewer older workers have high digital capabilities) and very clear under-representation for BAME individuals, it is very clear that there is much to do to improve the future of digital skills to support our economy.

Digital inequality is set to increase as a direct result of the past year. Individuals who were already disadvantaged due to affordability or disability have often found themselves even more so due to the recent developments. Over one-third of UK benefit claimants are in the ‘very low digital engagement’ category of the Lloyds Consumer Index report. Impairments are cited regularly in the list of challenges people face in advancing their digital skills. The disability charity Scope reports highlight that only 38% of disabled people have the digital skills needed for work and that disabled people were 40% less likely to have received digital skills support from their workplace. Combined with the fact that they are more likely to be working in the sectors most vulnerable to technological change, this suggests that specific action is needed to address this particular and significant inequality.

Digital support is available

Across the South West, there have been numerous programmes and initiatives designed to help businesses with their rapid acquisition of new digital skills and their effective deployment to secure and steady our businesses. The work of the HoTSW Digital Skills Partnership has focussed very heavily on capturing key insights and matching demand with supply as swiftly as possible, and with a focus on top quality provision too. Here are some examples of the programmes deployed and active since March 2020:

  • Bounce-Back Digital which provided digital support to SMEs and Micro businesses 83 webinars and over 800 businesses attended
  • Digital Momentum – supporting the under-represented elements in our workforce to advance digital skills. 200 participants, 70% of whom were women, and 61% of whom were currently not in permanent/full-time employment
  • Train 4 Tomorrow – 900 learners (so far) on a 12-week programme of ‘bootcamps’ to secure identified skills shortages in specific sectors
  • Coursera and Microsoft Global Skills Initiative – both were deployed with regional promotion and support to encourage engagement in top-quality online learning provision.

What's next for Digital Support in the South West?

Looking ahead, we have a range of opportunities to address the mis-match of supply and demand for digital skills. The Government’s new investment in programmes to boost skills generally are clear, and the opportunities presented to businesses by apprenticeships (including top quality degree apprenticeship in digital), T-Level students, workplace training. Our local training providers, colleges and Universities are all heavily invested in developing their digital skills offer and bringing forward excellent programmes this year. And for individuals seeking to re-skill and obtain new opportunities for employment, there are a number of projects available including the newly launched Restart programme for people who have been made redundant since March last year and providing them with change to develop new digital skills. The Positive People programme of digital skills delivery continues to work to support disadvantaged individuals including those at the sharper end of digital inequality. But there is so much more to be done to ensure every person and every business gains maximum advantage from the opportunities ahead.

Every business, large or small, should be making the most of the opportunity to review and reflect on the skills needed for the years ahead now. Making the most of digital skills is a clear priority, and so understand the training available and ensuring your existing staff and new recruits are motivated and supported to continue developing digital skills will bring major benefits. Seeking out additions to workforces should include a very clear ambition to bring further diversity and digital skills and roles is a great way to address this challenge.

This new post-pandemic era spells a golden opportunity to make digital the heart of your plans, investment and skills development. As we re-energise the SW economy, ensuring that our wonderful businesses across the region, be they hospitality, retail, agriculture, manufacturing, care, construction, professional services, creative, and all other sectors, every one of them has a digital prerogative to understand and maximise.

This article was originally published by the South West Business Council, July 2021.


Cosmic and partner organisations are ready to support you, with a broad range of funded businesses support programmes. Get in touch if you'd like to find out more, or check out our events page to see what's coming up.