UK government must tackle digital poverty to close skills gap

The UK government needs to properly acknowledge and address digital poverty if it wants to resolve the growing skills gap and support economic growth, according to charity group the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA).

Elizabeth Anderson, COO of the DPA, said that the charity’s data shows that 82% of jobs in the UK require digital skills. The data projected that there will be five million digitally under-skilled workers in the UK by 2030.

According to the charity, Britain will take an economic hit as a result of digital poverty if the problem isn’t sufficiently addressed at an institutional level.

The digital skills gap has been a long-standing and growing problem for the UK’s labour markets. Recent data from Tech Nation showed the ratio between digital skills-required job vacancies and workers able to fill those roles could stifle the growth of the industry and wider UK economy.

There were more than two million job vacancies in UK tech last year, but industry figures show nearly 12 million workers lack essential digital skills.

For the DPA, the root of the problem is down to the limited standard of digital education at the school level, as well as the government’s failure to acknowledge digital access as a basic right.

“There are at least 6% of the population, probably more, who are permanently offline. That rises to nearly three million when you just look at people who’ve not used the internet in the last three months,” Anderson told Business Matters.

The DPA’s data shows that low-income inner-city areas and low-income coastal communities have it the worst when it comes to limited internet and digital access, as the financial barrier for entry is too much.

The DPA said that the government should see digital access as a right, not a luxury.

“You wouldn’t move into a house that didn’t have water,” said Anderson. “Why do we assume with more and more public services, and indeed corporate services moving online, that people can make do without the internet?”

From an educational standpoint, the government has made some efforts to address the issue. Former digital minister Chris Philp, speaking at London Tech Week this year, unveiled the UK’s digital strategy.

The strategy touched on the need to boost the quality of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) education at schools. However, the plan received criticism for its vague suggestions that lack concrete plans.

“There were a few broad-brush concepts about education. But there was nothing to address the underlying essential need to tackle exclusion in digital,” Anderson said.

The DPA’s suggestion to improve digital skills education is to ensure schools can provide students with access to devices and to include digital skills at the teacher training level.

Public and private partnerships have been running initiatives to plug the UK’s digital skills gap. For example, the West Midlands Combined Authority has been running a series of digital skills bootcamps, and recently partnered with tech giant Microsoft to assist with training and put people into tech roles in the region.

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