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Solving the digital skills puzzle

Photo of Chris Hogan at the CIPD ACE event

‘Solving the digital skills puzzle’ was the title of a talk given by Chris Hogan, Director of Employer Propositions at the Open University (OU), at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) recent annual conference exhibition.

In his role at the OU, Chris spends a lot of time talking to employers, finding out what their needs and challenges are and how best to address them. In the talk on the Insights stage, Chris said it’s clear from those conversations that a scarcity of digital skills is an ongoing and pressing issue for many employers. In his session, Chris talked about the scale of the problem, how it’s impacting on organisations and how institutions such as the OU can help employers boost the supply of digital skills in the workplace. Firstly, he spoke about the worsening digital capability gap.

Increasingly, I’m hearing much more about the challenges that the digital capability gap is causing for organisations, including limited growth options, not being able to bid for work, not being able to win business, loss of market share, compliance risk and people getting frustrated with the lack of digital capability development and delivery.

Chris Hogan
Director of Employer Propositions, The Open University

A concerning picture for digital skills

A survey conducted by the OU last year found that over three quarters of IT employers were struggling to recruit people with adequate digital skills. Furthermore, 62% of respondents said they were also struggling to upskill their existing employees with adequate digital skills. Chris explained that this second statistic is particularly problematic. “It’s worrying because if we don’t address the way we go about developing capability then this gap is only going to widen, it’s only going to get worse.”

Chris said there are several factors behind the digital skills gap (what he also calls the digital skills puzzle). They are that:

  • Technology keeps evolving at a very rapid pace, but digital capabilities are being developed at a much slower rate
  • The education ecosystem (from primary school through to further education) has not been sufficiently agile to keep abreast of and respond to digital change
  • The supply of digital skills has historically been low, while demand just keeps growing
  • Consumer demand has changed and accelerated as a result of the digital transformation precipitated by Covid-19
  • The costs of hiring talent with the right skills or hiring in contractors are high

Regarding this last point on costs, Chris said his conversations with employers demonstrate that the cost of not having the right digital skills often exceeds the costs involved in developing or recruiting them. “It’s the opportunity cost of not being able to bid for work and not being able to win business or not being able to compete effectively with those who have made leaps forward. And there are regulatory and compliance issues. All of these factors are risks that are posing problems for organisations across all sectors.”

Solving the puzzle

Chris recommended that employers need to “look beyond the edge of the puzzle” and that “digital experts have an important role, but they are only one piece of the puzzle”. He thinks organisations need to engender a digital mindset in order to develop and evolve digital talent, capabilities and supply and that it needs to embedded across three key areas: early careers, internal development and career changers.

A number of case studies were shared including the story of Phoebe, an apprentice at Kent-based software company, RDT Ltd.

Chris explained it is really important that employers pursue a policy of identifying and developing internal talent and not just existing IT talent – employers need to look at the competencies and career ambitions of the wider workforce to find out if any employees could be developed to transfer into a digital role. The same applies to hiring in new recruits – employers need to be able to identify those candidates that have ability and ambition to make a career change into a technical role.

It’s only by diversifying in this way and reaching out to a wider, less obvious talent pool that employers will be able to access and develop the digital skills that are so necessary.

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