Digital Skills for Tomorrow’s Workforce

Whilst companies continually look to improve productivity and drive greater efficiency, the use of new technologies continues to play an increasingly important role in shaping tomorrow’s businesses. Whilst much has been made in the media about the “high risk” of millions of jobs effectively being lost to technologies such as automation and robots by 2030, in practice, not all these jobs will be automated for a variety of economic, legal and regulatory reasons.
In reality, new automation technologies, in areas like AI and robotics, are likely to create completely new opportunities and jobs across all kinds of sectors. With each new job it is anticipated that a new baseline of digital skills will be required in areas such as Robot Process Automation, where anyone with the right skills can configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to execute continual improvements to business processes. Whilst some skills may be contracted out, a vast majority of these new skills will be needed from the workforce. And here lies the problem…

Regional digital strategy

There is a requirement for a digital strategy for the North East region. One that is based on collaboration before competition. But a fundamental throughout this is how to address the medium to long term digital skills gap – through education, business and society. Business and individuals have a responsibility to step forward to help turn qualifications into skills needed to perform commercial roles.
The pace of change is accelerating though. There is a need to simplify the industrial changes required and make businesses accountable and driven to create life-long learning. It serves no purpose to blame educational establishments for providing businesses with young people who are qualified but lacking the necessary skills. Constructive collaborations are needed to help educational establishments build employer-ready students for tomorrow.

Technology evaluation

One of the biggest challenges is actually understanding what is emerging in digital technology and what is most applicable to address the issues. There are advances and technologies that industry is not even aware of. If innovating companies are in the small minority because most technology is then rapidly copied, how can the 1% of true innovators be identified in order to create partnerships?
From there it is to ascertain how different solutions can be tested / piloted and identify what could be used and what benefits would be derived. New technology solutions need to be investigated in an impartial way.
Another big challenge for new technology is how you make the business case for investment, especially where is it unproven. Few organisations will have the skills to test a product in-house and demonstrate what it can/can’t do on something that is meaningful for the solutions sought.

The right skills

There is a shortage of qualified network professionals and a definite skills gap that doesn’t have a short term solution. And where there are skilled developers, they lack the flexibility (or indeed, the personal need) to adapt between languages. Services are moving to the cloud and systems and processes need to change to support the new challenges so any skills in cloud engineering and cloud migration will be sought.
Change and transformational skills are needed for the new world. Not simply coding skills.

Problems before technology

There will always be a skills lag because businesses will always innovate and product adoption will start slowly and accelerate as market acceptance is achieved. So technology will always advance ahead of education.
We need to understand problems, accept that not all can be solved and move into the commercial realm to assess solutions to adopt. The commercial world is only partially aware of solutions available but still need to make decisions or choose to delay.
But the focus should not start with the technology. Business leaders need to define their pain points first of all and find solutions for these. Businesses tend to focus on the technology first without defining why it’s needed!! People are enamoured by the technology.
Universities can play their part to de-risk innovation by working with business to collaborate and drive innovation. A problem is that universities are not necessarily set up to accommodate the fast pace of business. The education model evolves slowly whilst innovation revolutionises working practices and the demands these place on people.

Slowing the pace to move faster

So should the pace of innovation slow down, because society simply can’t catch up? After all, this may help because once systems are implemented they are soon outdated. Future-proof timelines are reducing and uncertainty increases the more rapid the innovation.
Standards can be beneficial to control processes and drive consistency e.g. when it’s adopted throughout a supply chain. But there is so much choice that people talk different technical languages despite needing similar overall solutions. Reducing complexity and choice could enable greater change!
The workers of tomorrow are coming along who only know the digital world – it is normalised to them. Schools are preparing them for research in ways that the previous generation were never taught. Where the current workforce was told what they need to know, the new generation are now taught how to solve problems for themselves through e.g. researching the solutions for their homework. Change is coming, gradually.

Collaboration and the curriculum

What is education’s future role? How do people problem-solve? The question is, is the teaching of these crucial skills the responsibility of the higher and further education community? Where skills deficits are constraining businesses this should motivate them to respond to the need to change and collaborate with partners who can help.
There are so many different dimensions to finding solutions. These are short and long term, structural challenges. Does the commercial driver – business – need to invest in youth to drive change and evolve?
Policy change is needed and how society shifts its understanding to define the pain that needs addressing and to create curriculum solutions.
There is a need to think strategically and co-ordinate the awareness of, and expansion of, best practice.
Many assume that teachers need to know everything but areas of the curriculum can be taught using expert online tutorials. This won’t address softer skills that education brings, but it can be part of the solution.
Business people should be collaborating with education to help deliver the skills training needed. It’s in everyone’s interest. CSR initiatives in business could be directed to support the school/university engagement but it needs co-ordinating and it needs to be policy-led if it’s to influence changes in the curriculum.
It’s wider than addressing certain disciplines in lessons. How is this learning shared across topics rather than just being delivered to e.g. computer science students? It needs to be curriculum-wide. Why not expose artists to art in gaming and to intellectual property for their art by building their knowledge of blockchain?

Conclusion

  • It’s no single party’s responsibility or problem to solve. We all need to get involved in this.
  • Businesses are willing but need directing. This can only be effective if there is a long term strategy to address skills gaps within education.
  • Co-ownership between education, business and policy makers is therefore needed. And where it exists it needs communicating, energising and facilitating.
  • Amongst all this potential upheaval and change, we need to create the right environments for students to feel comfortable to learn.

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