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How to combat the digital skills shortage

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9th Mar 2015
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A new report by Tech City has found that Britain's digital businesses are booming. In 2014 1.6m people were employed in the sector and 45k digital jobs were advertised. However, despite these promising statistics there is a distinct lack of skilled workers in the industry. Here, Brian Matthews discusses his thoughts on the shortage.

The UK’s digital economy is growing so fast it is beginning to buckle under its own weight, and the number of jobs advertised reflect this. The UK’s economic growth and the success of its digital industries are intrinsically linked, with the digital sector influencing the very way in which we conduct business. It is a disruptive force that is sending shockwaves through traditional industries and creating a whole new breed of digital-born sectors.

However, unlike more traditional sectors, it seems that the way in which people find their way into the digital industry differs significantly. Whereas the foundations of other sectors are built strongly on academia, digital companies appear to be springing up from wholly different means, and tend to be built upon collaborative communities of entrepreneurs. This, coupled with the education system's apparent inability to keep up with the pace, has led to a distinct skills shortage in the sector. It has been suggested that the UK is going to need 750,000 additional digitally skilled workers by 2017 and at present there are just not enough professionals to fill these positions.

Skills gap

The feedback we receive on a daily basis from the employers we work with makes it apparent that the industry is crying out for more skilled workers. To try and shed some light on the reasons behind this growing skills gap I conducted some research which surveyed young professionals from across the UK. The findings revealed that only half of the UK’s top earners in the digital sector attended university. It also found that of those employed at top levels that did complete higher education, only 30% went to a Russell Group university. These figures help confirm the claims that many universities are not placing enough emphasis on digital courses. 

Clearly, there need to be drastic improvements to the way digital skills are taught in universities, and from school level for that matter. I personally believe that the higher education courses that already exist need to be re-designed so that graduates are properly able to meet the needs of employers. In addition, universities that aren’t already offering digital courses should be incorporating them into their portfolios – they should now be right up there with traditionally more academic offerings.

What can recruitment agencies do to target the problem?

As well as necessary changes to the education system, recruitment agencies can do their bit to help tackle the digital skills shortage too, by identifying, attracting and retaining digital talent. Recruitment companies have access to candidates that internal recruiters may struggle to reach and can help source digital candidates from across the UK and internationally and coordinate relocation.

Digital-specific recruitment agencies have dedicated digital recruitment teams including eCommerce, agency and production who possess expert knowledge of the different digital market places. This enables recruiters to provide a consultative approach and advise companies on the best way to build digital teams, what training and procedures they need to put in place to attract the best talent, and how they can create new digital job opportunities. 

Times are changing

Despite the fact that in order to close the skills gap there needs to be a considerable change of tactics from both education bodies and recruitment agencies, it does appear that times are changing.

It seems the higher education system is now realising the scale of the problem and trying to get to grips with supplying the rapidly growing industry with a pool of talented candidates. Promisingly, there are a number of universities now realising the importance of incorporating digital into their course offerings. Salford University’s JEMSS (Joint European Masters in Social and Digital Marketing) scheme and Manchester Met University’s Agency Life programme are just some examples of universities making strides in adopting digital offerings.

However, though these are promising steps, the real benefits won’t be seen until these students have completed higher education and moved into the workforce. There's no doubt that we're moving in the right direction, but a lot of work still needs to be done to help close the digital skills gap in order for the sector to reach its full potential.

Brian Matthews is managing partner at digital recruiter The Candidate

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