Covid-19 and our growing digital skills crisis

three people working on laptops smiling, digital skills

Article by Julia Beaumont, CTO of Prince’s Trust youth charity

As the UK continues to embrace digital working life, there is a widespread belief that young people have the digital skills to hit the ground running as they enter the working world. 

However, not all young people are as digitally savvy as we assume, and we need to work to change this to bring equality in terms of the opportunities, access, experience, and socialisation that the digital world can provide, as well as being able to overturn the burgeoning digital skills gap within the UK economy.

According to a report by the Learning and Work Institute published in March this year only 62% of young people think they have basic digital skills, such as the ability to communicate digitally or use common software, and only 18% thought they had more advanced digital skills employers might need, like coding. This is a concerning thought with jobs increasingly demanding that people possess strong digital capabilities.

Fixing our digital skills gap is not going to happen overnight, but there are a whole host of proactive steps to take that will help mitigate the risk of further divisions and start closing the gap – this begins with considering the barriers to accessing digital devices.

Nominet, the registry running the .UK domain, recently released a report which showed that 94% of 8–11s and 99% of 12-15s were online last year. At first glance this seems like a very high percentage, but even so it means that as many as one million children missed out on online learning during the first lockdown due to having little or no access to technology.  Solutions to get every child online are urgently needed, as this imbalance and the setbacks it creates for disadvantaged young people must never happen again.

But it’s not just a question of devices and connectivity. Young people are also being held back in the digital space by their lack of softer skills, namely communicating effectively online, online judgement and decision making, and navigating websites – all of which could adversely hamper them in the long run given that digital skills are not just desirable but necessary in the world of work.

The short-term fixes to alleviate the impact of digital poverty throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been positive, but they are only the start. Digital technologies became the critical enabler of the continuation of schools, universities, and businesses – and schemes to roll out devices to the digitally unconnected increasingly entered the mainstream. In fact, we became more connected than ever before and according to Ofcom, more than 7 in 10 online adults in the UK are now making video calls at least weekly since the start of the pandemic.

Now we need to look further ahead, and to really consider the long-term plans that should be implemented to provide young people with the education, resources, and insight they need to make the most of their future working lives. Collaboration will be key to ensuring this.

For example, the Prince’s Trust is currently working with Nominet to update its digital toolkit to bridge the gap between young people and potential future employers. It aims to connect young people across the UK to meaningful entry-level jobs within the Prince’s Trust’s partner networks.

Nominet is also supporting The Prince’s Trust with its broader data transformation strategy by helping the Trust to understand more about the young people they are supporting, and the outcomes being achieved. This will mean institutions aiming to tackle the digital skills gap will increasingly gain the insights required to make a tangible difference. Collaborations like this are invaluable, as they foster a supportive environment for young people to improve their digital capabilities which is key for catalysing change.

The past eighteen months of the pandemic have raised a number of questions surrounding digital transformation and the future of work – not only in the UK but across the world. To give young people a fighting chance to succeed we need to give them the opportunities to improve their digital skills by providing them with the digital support, tools, and education required to flourish.

Julia BeaumontAbout the author

Julia joined The Prince’s Trust as their Chief Technology Officer in November 2020. In her role at The Prince’s Trust, she is leading the transformation of technology, digital and data services for the charity’s employees and volunteers, as well as for the young people they serve.