Addressing digital skills gaps: why the sector can be at the forefront of the challenge | NCFE

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Addressing digital skills gaps: why the sector can be at the forefront of the challenge

David Redden David Redden Product Manager, NCFE

The following article was originally published by FE News on 20 June 2023.

Essential Digital Skills launched during a global pandemic at a time that exposed people’s digital vulnerabilities. David Redden, Product Manager at the educational charity and leader in vocational and technical learning NCFE, discusses why there’s still stigma attached to digital shortfalls and how providers and colleges can become role models in the sector.     

While there’s always been evidence pointing to a problem, it wasn’t until we were isolated and our only means of communication became digital that our weaknesses were truly placed under a spotlight. 

Whether it was suddenly working from home or trying to conduct a video call with your nearest and dearest, people’s limitations were there for all to see.  

Since the pandemic, the move to a more digital world has continued. Where once shops had ‘cash only’ signs, now you’re more likely to see ‘contactless only’.  

Recruitment for jobs is online, doctor’s appointments are online and, while millions have improved their abilities, there’s still a massive proportion of the population who lack the essential digital skills needed in everyday life, work, and education. 

During that period, I led a project at NCFE to launch its new Essential Digital Skills qualifications and had the pleasure of engaging with organisations such as FutureDotNow – working with them to address the lack of digital skills in the country.  

It was during FutureDotNow Fest, while addressing an audience on the need for employers to ensure their staff have the digital skills to do their day-to-day roles, that I felt a sense of hypocrisy. I became aware that I was telling them to do something that NCFE itself wasn’t currently doing. 

Chastened by this feeling, I approached our executive board with the idea of allowing all NCFE colleagues the chance to sit an initial assessment in Essential Digital Skills and, based on their results, the opportunity to progress and complete the qualification. 

Being an educational charity with a core belief to not leave any learner behind, NCFE threw its weight behind the initiative and the results have been fantastic – seeing over 200 employees take up the challenge.  

From a company perspective, it was reassuring that so many came out with a high level of digital skills but, even better, 23% of those that took part expressed an interest in progressing to the qualification.  

This meant they’re boosting their skills and establishing their knowledge in this area to give them greater competencies to perform their roles, as well as develop new areas of awareness outside of work. 

If a company like NCFE that operates a hybrid working policy had almost a quarter of its workforce feeling the need to develop their digital skills, how many people in other organisations would also benefit from this support? 

In 2017, the European Commission estimated that more than 1.2 million UK businesses are underperforming due to “insufficient digital awareness and lack of necessary skills”. As far back as 2015, the House of Lords stated that digital skills should be taught as the third “core subject” alongside numeracy and literacy. 

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport’s report in June 2019 – No Longer Optional: Employer Demand for Digital Skills - found digital skills are becoming near-universal requirements for employment.  

Acquiring specific digital skills makes career progression, as well as a pay increase, more likely. In certain fields, job seekers need to develop digital skills related to specific technical tools of their chosen discipline to advance their careers.  

However, what’s key for employers is providing their employees with a basic level of digital skill and creating the platform for them to progress. 

Embedding digital skills from top down is also essential. There’s still some shame attached to admitting you’re not digitally confident, however it could easily be the chief executive lacking the skills. As a sector, this should be something every provider aspires to. 

With the launch of NCFE’s new Digital Functional Skills qualifications – which are aimed more at developing digital skills for study and work in contrast to the Essential Digital Skills qualifications which are focused on developing digital skills for everyday life – there are now even more options for people to build their abilities, especially those workplace skills that are required daily.  

Whether you’re a training provider or college, maybe now is the time to start looking within your own organisation first, just as NCFE did, to identify the level of digital skills you have currently, and what actions you can take to make an improvement.   

To find out more about these qualifications at NCFE, visit our Digital Functional Skills webpage. 

What’s key for employers is providing their employees with a basic level of digital skill and creating the platform for them to progress. 

David Redden, Product Manager at NCFE
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