Lack of digital talent holding back firms

Trevor Lockhart  (far right)
Trevor Lockhart (far right)
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Technology is changing the way we live and work, creating millions of jobs and adding £184 billion to the UK economy since 2017. New data and digital technologies – from AI to Internet of Things - are revolutionising the way all businesses in Northern Ireland operate.

Yet with these exciting technological advances come challenges for companies. New CBI/Tata Consulting Services data reveals that over two thirds of businesses have unfilled digital vacancies - with less than a third of firms confident they’ll be able to access the talent they need in the next few years.

This digital skills crunch is restricting businesses’ ability to grow, scale-up and compete internationally. Action must be taken now to stop skills shortages spiralling even further.

Right now, digital skills shortages are estimated to be costing the UK £63 billion a year and the European Commission alone highlights a potential of 756,000 unfilled ICT roles across Europe by 2020.

Throughout 2019 the CBI in Northern Ireland have been working on bridging the gap between digital companies and government policy to allow our digital sector to grow and flourish.

The local digital sector is worth around £3.2 billion to the Northern Ireland economy and employs nearly 30,000 people. It has a major impact on the productivity of most other sectors in the economy ranging from construction through to hospitality. With Northern Ireland’s productivity levels sitting significantly below the EU average, harnessing our digital capability is an economic prize that cannot be ignored.

Firms here are ready to play their part to plug the digital skills gap. Yet our data shows that, worryingly, almost half of firms from all across the UK are fishing in the same pool for new UK-based talent outside of their organisation. And demand for both basic and advanced digital skills is increasing faster than ever.

Businesses need people with a solid grasp of data-driven insights and how internal systems interlink, whether they work in marketing, plant machinery, or sales. But they must also possess basic skills that range from communication to problem-solving.

But what’s really important to remember it that it isn’t just an economic argument to improve digital skills, but a clear social one too. It’s essential everyone has the skills to benefit from the new economy and make the most of the opportunity technology will bring. And as more and more public services move online, helping people learn relevant digital skills is essential if they are to actively participate in society.

Firms can’t address the UK’s accelerating digital skills needs alone. In the short term, the UK government must ramp up its efforts by coordinating local skills training with local business demand.

There’s already a number of initiatives at both a regional and national level, but for these to be effective firms need clearer direction and coordination.

In the longer term, the UK government must set a target and develop action plans to ensure that 100 per cent of the workforce have basic digital literacy by 2025.

Upholding UK competitiveness in the years ahead is a crucial challenge, and we are not starting from scratch on digital skills, but companies must make a concerted effort to upskill and retrain their workforce so the UK can continue to forge its place as a world leader in the global digital race.