Article James Swaffield, Managing Director, Capita Learning

The idea of full-time remote working was once exclusive to a small group of people, typically conjuring thoughts of the self-employed person managing their business from the convenience of their home office.

Fast forward to the present, and large swathes of the workforce continue to work from home despite an end to all Covid restrictions at the beginning of the year – recent ONS figures show 23% of UK businesses are using (or plan to use) the remote working model on a permanent basis. Make no mistake: this is a seismic shift in the space of two years.

Yet, while the development and proliferations of businesses technologies have helped facilitate remote working – often with relative ease and speed – it has simultaneously exposed the severe shortage of digital skills among UK employees.

Indeed, research from Salesforce’s Global Digital Skills Index found that 80% of UK workers do not feel ready to operate in a digital-first world, with 43% stating they feel ‘overwhelmed’ by the rate of technological change.

Worryingly, cybersecurity skills shortages are one prevalent area that contributes to this wider digital skills gap. In a report published earlier this year, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) found that approximately 697,000 UK businesses (51%) have a basic skills gap. It highlighted that the individuals in charge of cybersecurity in businesses lack the confidence to carry out the kinds of basic tasks laid out in the government-endorsed Cyber Essentials scheme.

Certainly, for organisations of all sizes, a lack of cybersecurity skills among their staff could lead to damaging consequences. Yet, as the ‘war for talent’ intensifies, it is likely that the repercussions could be worse for small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which might lack the resource to attract and retain those with the most highly sought-after skills.

SMEs most at risk

Whenever cybersecurity breaches make the headlines, the target tends to be a major institution or brand.

However, online criminal activity is often directed toward smaller businesses. In fact, Markel found that 51% of SMEs have been the victim of a cybersecurity breach, with malware, data breaches, and phishing the most common forms.

Compared to a larger national and international organisation that may be able to weather the storm of a breach (financially and reputationally), the effects of a cyberattack for SMEs can be devastating. For example, one study in the US found that as many as 60% of hacked SMEs go out of business within six months of an incident.

In addition, to the immediate financial hit from the loss of data and assets, cyberattacks can cause further problems for businesses. For instance, the time and effort spent recuperating from an attack in an attempt to go back to normal operations. At the same time, the possibility of losing a commercial contract or customer trust could potentially be the most damaging side effect of all.

The need to solve the cybersecurity skills deficit could not be stronger, from reputational damage and financial expenses to national security concerns. Employees must be able to recognise and resolve threats to remain ahead of them, which applies not only to cybersecurity experts and IT departments, but to the entire workforce.

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Reskilling and upskilling are key

Bridging the cybersecurity skills gap does not mean flooding the workforce with highly trained advanced tech professionals.

Instead, the aim should be to take a human-centric approach where all employees are comfortable with the IT systems and processes they are working with – particularly when human error is the biggest culprit for cybersecurity breaches.

Smaller businesses without IT departments should be able to operate smoothly, with business leaders safe in the knowledge that their staff can set up firewalls or safely identify phishing emails and malware. To achieve this, businesses that have not already done so will need to consider training opportunities that allow all staff, not just those in advanced tech roles, to reskill and acquire the digital skills they may be missing.

Fortunately, there are options available. Digital skills bootcamps are a great example of one initiative making real progress in this area. For instance, with a £7 million grant, West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has piloted over 30 digital bootcamps and trained around 2,000 adults with essential tech skills. Recently, a further £21 million was made available from the Adult Education Budget to fund the new bootcamps in the West Midlands over the next three years, with a target of supporting more than 4,000 people.

The bootcamps are guided by seasoned industry specialists and play a critical role in educating the workforce – particularly young people – with hands-on data training. They are free for participants and provide clear channels for employers to either upskill or hire new talent.

Further, these programmes offer a fantastic opportunity to broaden the talent pool in the tech industry. Bridging the cybersecurity skills gap will take a team effort. Essential training should be made available to as many people as possible, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or wealth.

Digital skills bootcamps are crucial to the development of a tech-competent workforce. Certainly, SMEs need to maintain a sufficient level of online security and prevent financial and reputational loss, which is critical to their survival. Therefore, to improve access to digital skills training for all employees, I would advise employers to look for current digital skills partnerships in their region and, if possible, engage with course providers.

James SwaffieldAbout the author

James Swaffield is the Managing Director of Capita Learning. Capita is a consulting, transformation and digital services business that provides innovative solutions to help businesses and the public sector operate effectively and efficiently whilst transforming customer and citizen experience.