Understanding systemic inequality in digital skills

20th December 2021

Digital skills can be positively transformative for some young people, in terms of their education, social life, future employment and career progression, though it is a true marker of disadvantage and displacement for those without them. But ‘digital skills’ can be a broad term, covering a wide range of competencies and interpreted differently by different stakeholders. More needs to be done to uncover the root causes for why so many young people remain excluded from work due to inaccessible digital skills or specifically within digital roles requiring advanced skills.

Catch22 and Nominet have partnered with Bean Research to create a series of four insight papers to gain deeper insights into the barriers some of the most disadvantaged groups in the UK face when it comes to digital skills and access.

The first paper – launched at the end of November 2021 – sets the scene for the proceeding papers, highlighting both the exciting opportunities presented from the growing digital economy and the substantial barriers disadvantaged communities face in accessing these opportunities.

What is so timely about this research is laying out the existing thinking about different definitions of digital skills. This is going to help us to move closer to a shared language to better understand the landscape and to effectively marry strategies to meet unmet needs. We face a situation where, while unemployment for young people remains pervasive, tech sector vacancies stand at over 100,000 per month in the fastest growing sector in the UK economy. These papers are the start of a journey to enable employers, Government and UK youth services to work together to understand this gap and why approaches to date haven’t been working.

Kat Dixon from Catch22 says: “Digital careers offer an incredible opportunity for economic inclusion, social mobility and equality. We embarked on this research to build a richer picture of pathways into digital careers and how employers, government and the third sector can pull together to build the future UK workforce.”

The launch of the Nominet Digital Youth Index in early November 2021 brought some related insights on Digital Skills to the fore.

Justin Spooner from Unthinkable shared this view: “An aspect of digital learning that can sometimes be forgotten is how effective it can be for creating what I call a connected learning culture – a way in which we are better able to learn with and from each other. This is something that can happen both in the formal context of school and college but of course massively happens in all the other aspects of young people’s lives.” – Read more: Asking all the big questions – Digital Youth Index

Amy O’Donnell from Nominet’s social impact team said: “One of the most striking findings from the Digital Youth Index for me was how almost half of young people (48%) are primarily teaching themselves digital skills, equivalent to 6.9 million young people, often by its nature informal, with little input from parents or teachers. If we are to ensure we leave no-one behind, we must think structurally in multiple, cross-cutting spectrums in the way digital spaces mirror inequalities in society. In many instances, digital realities even exacerbate these inequalities. It’s a much-repeated lesson that digital is not a passive equaliser, so can we pinpoint what new forms of inequity are becoming apparent that can be put down to changes in digital access and skills?” Read More: “You’re on mute!”: Not just digital skills, but skills to thrive in a Digital Age – Digital Youth Index

The Digital Youth Index also found that tech jobs are most appealing to young children, young men and those from wealthier families. Digital careers offer higher pay and opportunities for progression – so making them more accessible for minority or marginalised groups potentially has a levelling effect in our unequal society.

But it’s more than that. It’s no surprise that those involved in the design of digital services end up reflecting the types of users who engage with these services. In turn, this affects who shows up in data, informs decision making or resource allocation. In other words: it shows where power lies.

Working on the diversity of digital design is more than just a tick box. Supporting more women, people of colour, people with disabilities and those from lower income families into digital careers holds inherent value and is fundamental to realising a vibrant and representative digital economy.

Nominet is delighted to support the launch of this research and looks forward to welcoming your feedback, further discussion and the series to come.

Read more on the Catch 22 blog including access to the recording of the launch event including youth panel: Catch22 and Nominet launch first in series of 4 insights papers looking at barriers to digital skills and access – Catch22 (catch-22.org.uk)