Companies are turning to universities to bridge the digital skills gap

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Nine out of ten organisations in the country currently lacking digital skills.

By U2B Staff 

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Much has been written about the digital skills gap in the United Kingdom. As a burgeoning tech hub and home to a thriving startup culture, the UK is constantly seeking talented workers ready to take on the tasks of this increasingly tech-driven economy.

Employers are more than aware of the need for tech-savvy employees as well as the struggles that come with finding them; nine out of ten organisations in the country say they are currently lacking necessary digital skills. But the answer to bridging this gap lies closer to home than some employers realise.

Rather than seek new staff who fit the bill, employers are increasingly realising they have the talent in-house – it just needs some coaching. And in a sharp shift away from in-house training, employers are appreciating that the best people to provide that direction are universities and outside institutions.

Together, the acceptance of lifelong learning and the provision of quality courses from higher education are coming together to solve the digital skills shortage. But, for now, there’s still a long way to go.

The current state of the digital skills gap

As mentioned earlier, 90 percent of UK companies feel they are lacking digital skills in-house, with the main concern lying around cybersecurity, cloud-based development and management, and emerging technologies.

According to an in-depth report from The Open University, this is already having a significant impact on the performance of businesses.

Fifty-six percent report skills shortages have already negatively impacted productivity and 47 percent say a lack of digital skills is impacting their organisation’s ability to implement new time or cost-saving technologies. Troublingly, half expect profitability to be negatively affected in the next five years.


Given the uncertain future of the British economy, this lack of profitability is likely to have serious knock-on effects that could risk the small and medium sizes businesses that currently prop up the UK.

This is compounded by the likely reduction in the pipeline of tech talent coming from overseas once the UK leaves the European Union, which is likely to happen within a matter of months.

While these statistics are concerning, the solution doesn’t lie across borders and in new talent. For the UK, the answer could lie much closer to home.

The solution – executive education

Organisations are recognising the importance of upskilling their current staff and training them in the vital skills so necessary for today’s ever-shifting work environment.

Managers and CEOs are wising up and acknowledging that things have to change if they’re going to be successful, with 79 percent of employers now believing they have to change the way they think about training and skills development.

Many are putting their money where their mouth is. The Open University found organisations were planning to spend 13 percent more on digital training this year than they did in the last, with the average budget increasing from £52,150 to £58,750 across all organisations. Many feel this is still not enough to keep up with the changing needs and plan to invest even more in the future.

This increase may not only be a result of the realisation that corporate training and executive education is needed, but also down to the acknowledgement that professional outside organisations are best set to deliver it.

Turning to universities to plug the digital skills gap

Over the next year, the amount of in-house training is expected to decrease as organisations turn their sights to external training courses and higher education.

There appears to be increasing acceptance that higher-level skill acquisition and a deeper understanding of fundamental core principles is required to make the investment worthwhile. Universities are the best positioned to deliver this cutting-edge, of the minute training that will pay dividends in the long run.

Companies, particularly SMEs, need to know that any investment made on their part is going to deliver returns. What is stopping some employers from taking this plunge is the undeniable fact that tech is changing at lightening speed. At this pace, there is the risk that any investment in training will be redundant before it has had the chance to pay-off in real terms.

digital skills gap
Only 10 percent of human resource departments have implemented a recruitment or training programme to close the digital skills gap.

This makes it difficult to plan for the future when we don’t know what the future looks like. The report found 52 percent of organisations feel technology evolves too quickly for them to keep up with the skills required, making it difficult to have a long-term plan for training.

In this environment, it’s inescapable that learning must be lifelong and continuous if employees and business wish to remain relevant.

Building a base of core skills

This is where universities are more effective than in-house corporate training.

Programmes like apprenticeships are becoming more popular as employees are often able to put what they learn into practice right from the start. Organisations are looking to invest in training that can have an immediate impact on their operations.

While this is a major and immediate benefit to higher educational training, there are also many advantages that pay off long-term.

According to the Open University, higher-level qualifications provided by universities enable employees to build up valuable core skills that give them a strong foundation on which to build. While the tech may change, these base skills allow the graduate to continually develop their expertise. They are, essentially, behaviours that make the employee more amenable to lifelong learning.


“As new requirements emerge, organisations can focus on delivering top up training that builds on core skills, which ensures that new abilities can be quickly added to the workforce; this will be crucial if the pace of change remains constant,” the report reads.

“This kind of training also delivers a solid foundation of skills and knowledge across all pillars of IT, providing agility that will be critical as technologies and platforms become increasingly interdependent, and as products and applications change rapidly.”

The results

It is, of course, expected that the end result of the training is a staff body well versed in the relevant digital skills of the age. But studies are finding there are many additional advantages to employers keeping their employees in the learning frame of mind.

The skills gained don’t just add value in tech skills. If utilised properly, they can also help a business transform in other ways and achieve targets.

Of those organisations who have offered digital skills training in the past 12 months, 41 percent reported increased productivity. According to the report, three in 10 companies saw better engagement from the workers who received training.

Those with training not only benefit personally, but the study found they then pass on their knowledge to colleagues, creating a ripple effect of expertise and training, without the investment.

The training also makes employees feel valued in the company, making them happier in the roles and more likely to stick around longterm.

Twenty-six employers said that staff retention has increased amongst those receiving training, and it boosted morale in 22 percent of companies.

All of these elements help keep costs down for a business. While the upfront investment of higher education lifelong learning may seem like a big step, it is clear that the rewards pay off many times over. Lifelong learning is just a fact of today’s employment market. And who better to trust that the experts?