Technological innovations continue to speed on and yet over 4 million people in the UK still lack even basic digital skills. A further 11.3 million – 21% of the population – have only limited abilities online. The British economy bears the brunt of this; a lack of digital skills could be costing UK businesses £84.5 billion each year – and this damage will only continue unless someone wades in to tackle the issue.
Enter Simon Leeming, Head of the Digital Skills Partnership (DSP) at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The DSP, formed following the Government’s Digital Strategy of 2017, works towards improving digital skills nationwide in collaboration with industry partners (including Nominet) and local communities and initiatives. It is perhaps the only way to approach such a far-reaching, complex issue; working collaboratively and optimising the available resources to affect many different demographics across the country.
“Our industry partners have already delivered millions of free training opportunities. Part of our job is to reduce duplication of existing efforts and make it easier for the people we’re trying to help to understand what’s available,” explains Simon. “There is a lot of good work going on already which we need to tap into, creating some coherency in the space and ensuring the messaging is suited to the particular groups we are targeting.”
The landscape is encouraging: “I’ve worked in digital skills and inclusion for almost four years and it’s exciting to see how many people are now becoming interested in this area. One of the best challenges I face is having so many ideas filtering through and not enough time to embrace them all. A nice problem to have.”
Simon copes with the influx by focusing attention on four key areas that are important to the DSP. The first two of these segue nicely: to improve national coherence around digital skills, and to support local DSP initiatives to tailor training opportunities meet local needs. The other focus areas are digital enterprise – helping SMEs and charities to upskill – and improving computing in schools, where the next generation is learning their life skills from teachers who can themselves sometimes struggle to teach these crucial tech and cyber subjects.
“There is also a misconception that the young are digital natives, growing up with fully formed digital skills,” explains Simon. “Yes, they have a familiarity with technology, but they don’t necessarily have adaptable skills.” Today, he stresses, we require both technical skills (such as coding and basic computer literacy) and so-called ‘soft skills’ (like communication and analytical thinking) to ensure people are “useful in employment and can adapt as required in a changing world”.
Simon isn’t blind to the myriad challenges that the DSP faces, not least trying to change some deep-rooted mindsets and make informed deductions about what tomorrow’s world will look like. “We have to do a bit of crystal ball gazing to imagine what gaps are on the horizon and to try and predict the future of work, as technology is changing the nature of jobs,” he says. “But technology is not a hindrance to this; it helps.”
One area Simon and his team are currently looking at is applying machine learning to job vacancy data to establish the digital skills common to certain roles. This will help to ensure training provision is developed to meet demand. “Working with data scientists and learning how much they can do has been really fascinating,” says Simon. “The variety and breadth of my position as Head of the DSP makes my job a varied and interesting one. I definitely never have a dull day.”
There is an underlying optimism and enthusiasm within Simon, fuelled by the pleasure he gets from the potential of making a positive impact on the lives of many. “We’re driving social inclusion and mobility as well as digital inclusion – these are really rewarding things to be doing,” he says. “I’m hopeful for the future. We can tend to catastrophise, especially when the headlines are full of cyber attacks and concerns around security, but that is only one part of the internet and technology.”
Simon emphasises the power of tech for good projects and the various initiatives up and down the country that use technology to make a positive difference. “I’m really excited about the potential for technology to improve our lives, and I meet so many interesting and passionate people who are working to that end.” Much of this informs his work, as the DSP operates more flexibly than some might suppose. “My colleague likens it to a start-up within Government; we have to keep adapting to the changing needs and embrace the ideas already out there. There is definitely a sense of innovation and opportunity here.”
A flexible approach is imperative to meet the challenge the DSP has set for itself, seeking a “culture shift so that continuous learning is part of the way we work and live.” But the path to success is littered with motivational barriers, as Simon himself well understands.
“I recently challenged myself to ‘walk the walk’, and learn some new digital skills myself, but then I had a busy week at work and put it off,” he explains. “These are exactly the challenges we face when we try to persuade people that digital skills training will pay off in the long term. Long term wins are harder to quantify than short term gains; rewards seem intangible. But life and work can certainly be made easier if you have digital skills.”
Simon is confident that when people realise what digital skills can give them access to, they will take the initiative and seek the training they need. “We can’t force anyone to train, but I believe that if they understand the benefits of having even just basic digital skills, they won’t hesitate.”
Read more about digital skills from our COO Eleanor Bradley, who co-chairs the National Coherence Working Group for the DSP.