Employers expect nearly two in five (37 per cent) job roles to alter significantly or become redundant as a result of new digital technology and automation in the next five years.

This is predicted to affect 12 million workers across the UK. However, according to The Open University’s latest report, Bridging the Digital Divide, which investigates digital skills shortages and the future of work in the UK, only one in five (18 per cent) employees realise their role could potentially be at risk.

While only half (48 per cent) of employees are interested in receiving training to improve their digital skills or retrain, business leaders recognise the need to invest in skills in order to mitigate redundancies and remain productive. On average, organisations have increased digital training budgets by 13 per cent in the past 12 months – from £52,150 to £58,750, while more than a quarter (27 per cent) have redirected their training budget to focus on digital skills training.

Shortage of digital skills

Currently, nine in 10 (88 per cent) organisations admit they have a shortage of digital skills, which is already having a significant negative impact on productivity, efficiency and competitiveness. The continued development of new technologies can only widen this gap further, with half (50 per cent) of organisations predicting a downturn in profits if the situation remains the same.

Employers are most concerned about cyber security, integrating new technologies and cloud-based technology, but many are struggling to keep up with the pace of change. More than half (52 per cent) of organisations report that new developments are coming too quickly for them to keep up with the skills required and making it difficult to plan for the future.

While the majority of employers (78 per cent) agree that developing skills through training would be more sustainable, more than half (55 per cent) believe that hiring in new workers would be a cheaper alternative. However, with half (50 per cent) of organisations believing that Brexit could inhibit their access to talent, this approach leaves organisations vulnerable to future digital skills shortages, when they could be building a strong foundation of skills that could be quickly mobilised in the face of new developments.

In this context, many organisations are starting to see the benefits of lifelong learning when it comes to digital skills. The majority (85 per cent) of senior leaders agree that it will become necessary to move to a model of lifelong learning in future, where employees are constantly developing and building new skills. And this also comes with other benefits, with employers reporting increased productivity (41 per cent) and better engagement (31 per cent) amongst those who have upskilled.

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More resilient, flexible and adaptable workers

As the digital revolution continues, the skills required to succeed will continue to change. Experts at The Open University suggest that now is the time for all employers develop a strong base of digital skills, in addition to any specialist skills required, so that workers become more resilient, flexible and adaptable to future needs. Those with higher-level skills are able to apply their knowledge effectively and find innovative solutions to emerging issues, and organisations can bring new skills into the workforce quickly by offering relevant short-courses and top-up training.

Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead at The Open University, responded to the findings: “Digital technologies have already disrupted entire industries. They have shaped the business environment of the future, where innovation is prized and tech-powered start-ups can displace even the most entrenched incumbents. Yet, despite clear threats to the workforce and profitability, many organisations continue to underestimate the importance of building digital skills – and while many continue to take a short-term approach, the shortage will only continue to grow.

“With an uncertain future posing a challenge to the future workforce, it is crucial that employers access the wealth of talent already within their organisation. By using training budgets to develop workers, including local skills re-training funding and apprenticeship levy funding, organisations can build up the skills they need to become resilient, flexible and adaptable in the face of future challenges.”

Jason Fowler, HR Director, Fujitsu UK & Ireland, commented: “Digital skills are key to driving effective change using technology, which is why it’s worrying to see that such a large proportion of organisations admit their staff lack digital skills. With the skills gap costing our economy £63 billion a year, there is an urgent need to funnel more efforts into investing in the UK workforce. If we don’t, there is a risk we won’t be able to keep up with the pace of change that is taking place.

“To sustain the competitiveness of the technology sector and to drive forward the UK economy, businesses, government and educational institutions need to come together to train and educate the current workforce and the next generation of workers so they are utilising new technologies and are ready for the jobs of tomorrow. Whether this is retraining programmes, apprenticeships, or public-private partnerships, there are many exciting and innovative pathways to ensure that the UK is digitally savvy.

“If we want to continue to see the UK as a ‘digital first’ nation we must ensure we are investing in all talent. From the current workforce to those at the very beginning of the journey, by developing the right skills we will be able to support the future digital economy.

Robots are here to take over?

Gege Gatt, CEO at EBO.ai, the artificial intelligence company, stated: “Whilst these findings may reignite fears that robots are here to take over, what people often fail to recognise is that by implementing technology, both employees and customers stand to benefit.

“By introducing advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual assistants to complete routine, repetitive tasks, employees will be freed up to focus on more challenging and creative jobs that bring a greater sense of achievement. This by default encourages employees to spend more time on complex, revenue generating tasks, which allows the business to improve its bottom-line numbers.

“Customers also stand to benefit; no longer will people have to spend hours on hold or be transferred between dozens of different call handlers. AI enabled assistants will take care of queries similar in nature, whilst humans deal with queries that require emotional intelligence. It’s therefore a win-win situation – business, customers and employees will all reap the benefits of new technology, as more and more jobs are augmented, rather than lost, through AI.”

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Further details on the digital skills shortage, and what businesses can do to tackle it, can be found in The Open University’s new report Bridging The Digital Divide.

https://www.open.ac.uk/business/bridging-the-digital-divide

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