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Yes, there’s a digital skills crisis in the UK, but we can solve it!

Liz Williams MBE, chief executive of FutureDotNow, discusses the crisis and how it can be tackled

The UK is in a digital skills crisis.  Over half of the UK’s workforce (17.1 million) lack workplace digital skills and 11.7 million (22%) adults are without the essential digital skills needed for everyday life, according to the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020.  These figures have remained stubbornly consistent for years. Perhaps not so surprising when only 23% of the UK workforce report having had any digital skills training from their employer.

As society moves more and more online, the sheer speed of digitisation is leaving many behind. This is damaging the UK’s competitiveness and productivity and preventing individuals and businesses taking full advantage of digital technology. The UK might have a thriving tech sector but all businesses now require some digital expertise.  And yet, over half the UK’s workforce is not equipped with the digital skills they need, as defined in the government’s Essential Digital Skills (EDS) Framework:

  • communicating: collaborating and sharing online
  • handling information and content: finding, managing and storing digital information securely
  • transacting: applying for services, buying and selling, and manage transactions online
  • problem solving: finding solutions to problems by using digital tools and online services
  • being safe and legal online.

Too few people understand this: the EDS are not well known (despite being in place since 2015) and many assume digital exclusion is an issue that only affects older people. It’s not as simple as that: over 40% of those completely offline in the UK are of working age.

Some major organisations are ‘getting digital’

Some, but not enough, organisations are beginning to ‘get it’ of course. And the Open University’s 2020 report Leading in a Digital Age clearly demonstrates what happens when this is the case: 88% of leaders who received digital training in the last year said their organisation experienced growth compared to 49% who did not. 89% of leaders who received training in the past year see digital technology as an opportunity to make their business more profitable, compared to just 64% who did not receive any training.

This recognition of the importance of digital skills is leading to forward steps in company culture.  At Nationwide Building Society, for example, junior people are training senior people in digital skills. It’s real reverse mentorship and makes a huge and positive difference to morale where junior staff can see senior staff really embracing digital skills.

Nationwide is a member of FutureDotNow, a coalition of leading companies and civil society organisations addressing the digital skills crisis through coordinated industry action. Our membership includes both big names such as Accenture, Asda, BT, Lloyds Banking Group, Nationwide Building Society and PwC, and smaller organisations.

We’re working in common cause to step change the UK’s digital skills gap among working age adults. Our goal is a 100% digitally included UK with everyone at the digital starting line equipped with the essential digital skills, and motivated to keep building their digital confidence and competence.  We’re already reaching of millions of people.  Having a multiplier effect on tackling the UK’s digital skills gap through common goals, complementary and coordinated action, learning and sharing best practice.

Essential digital skills qualifications

Helping young people build digital skills is important.  However, this cannot be at the expense of the rest of the population.  Too many working-age adults are being left behind. The Department for Education made a welcome announcement that it would develop and fully fund new Essential Digital Skills Qualifications (EDSQs) through the adult education budget. These free courses are intended to be offered to adults with no or low basic digital skills, in order that they can learn how to thrive in an increasingly digital world. With the pandemic, there have been some delays on the roll-out of these qualifications but we look forward to seeing the impact they have, in time.

T Levels and apprenticeships

For younger people, the new T Levels (see NCFE developed pathways here) are launching and will include appropriate digital skills. Digital is built into the classroom-based element, alongside maths and English, meaning students will be given a foundation of transferable skills whether studying for a T Level in education and childcare or design, surveying and planning for construction. It’s a massive step forward designed to ensure industries and major organisations will be able access a pipeline of more work-ready young people with relevant digital skills.

Since the beginning of August 2020, apprenticeship standards also have been required to include digital skills appropriate to the role. When a new standard is developed, trailblazer groups of trainers and employers consider which skills will be included. The Institute for Apprenticeships has produced a digital skills framework to help trailblazer groups develop digital content in apprenticeship standards. This builds on the digital skills in the government’s EDS Framework with problem-solving, digital collaboration and communication, transacting, organisational security and handling data securely set out in an occupational context and across occupational levels.


The UK’s digital skills crisis is real and multi-faceted.  Much of the business conversation to date has been on closing higher end digital skill gaps.  If we are to be a thriving digital society, inclusive and economically prosperous, we must get all the UK workforce at least to the digital starting line, equipped with the EDS able to problem-solve, communicate and collaborate digitally, transact confidently and handle data securely, mindful of organisational security.  

The pace of digitisation is having a profound effect but this rapid shift is leaving many businesses behind. Covid-19 highlighted this even more, and while some have adapted, many have not. As we recover, the UK must invest in the digital skills of citizens like never before.

FutureDotNow is shining a light on the issues that come from having 17m people without the essential digital skills for work, and more importantly the opportunity that can be realised by making this part of digital upskilling a business priority.  It’s not simply about talk, we’re helping industry with tools and content to make change happen and doing it together as a movement, a strong community.

We’d love you to join us to address this stubborn issue.  It’s critical for individuals, our communities and country. It’s free to join FutureDotNow, and you’ll get:

  • access to industry best-practice, knowledge and tools from organisations like yours to identify and close employee and customers’ essential digital skills gaps
  • help to identify your starting point, forward moves and an understanding of what would motivate your employees and customers to do more digitally
  • data and insight to support sector-specific business cases and how to magnify impact through your supply chain and networks.

Why not drop us a line at [email protected] and get the conversation started?

Upcoming event

On 28 January we’ll be hosting our first coalition meeting of 2021. You can hear from speakers from NCFE and Skills Forward about what they are doing to support new qualifications for essential digital skills, and how organisations can get involved and share best practice.

FutureDotNow has also created a Skills Playbook and we will be sharing it in this session, so please join us for the reveal of this exciting new tool!  Just register here: https://futuredotnow.uk/coalition-meetings-2021/

Liz Williams MBE is Chief Executive of FutureDotNow

Twitter @L12_W

LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/williamsliz

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