Listen to this article
The UK’s digital technology industries turn over £161bn a year. But a study by a charity that aims to improve people’s online abilities found that almost a quarter of the adult population lacked the basic digital skills needed to thrive.
The study of 4,000 people by Go ON UK also revealed it was not just mature age groups who struggled. “We often talk about young people being digital natives,” says Rachel Neaman, chief executive. She says that while younger people are often adept with messaging services such as WhatsApp, they may lack necessary skills — such as creating an online CV or using the web to apply for jobs — needed for a life at work.
The organisation used the research to create a digital exclusion heat map measuring five basic skills:
• Managing information, such as finding and storing data online.
• Communication, including using email and avoiding scams.
• Transactions, for instance completing an application for government benefits, and online shopping.
• Problem solving, by learning from videos and using support services such as live online chat applications.
• Creation of online documents, for example CVs and feedback on retail sites.
The map took into account data on income, education and web access to track the possibility of digital exclusion. It found that Wales had the lowest overall level of digital competences. By contrast, London and parts of Scotland ranked highly. Nearly one in four small businesses across the UK did not meet the five measures either.
Fostering internet competences is important, not least as concerns grow about the long-term effects of automation on employment.
A government-commissioned report published this year warned that a lack of digital skills for jobs presented a “major risk to business growth, innovation and broader societal development”.
It said digital skills needed to improve “continuously” across the population so all sectors and organisations could “maximise their competitive potential”.
Go ON UK, chaired by web entrepreneur Baroness Lane-Fox, hopes the heat map study will help people benefit from the potential the internet offers. It is among organisations running training courses, with backing from businesses, councils and community groups.
Employers are adapting, too. For example, digital skills are increasingly important for the station workforce of London Underground. In the past, frontline employees used desktop computers to answer passenger queries and handwritten logs to report incidents. Now station-based customer service staff use apps on iPad minis.
Giving employees tablets and training on how to use them is part of a broader update of the 153-year-old network.
“Adoption of technology is only going to increase across the Tube network,” says Xavier Brice, who led the station changes made by parent body Transport for London. “Through training we want to ensure all customer service staff, who may have moved from different roles, are familiar with the iPad.”
But such moves can be controversial. Trade unions objected to machines replacing ticket office staff. Meanwhile 838 workers are likely to opt for voluntary redundancy as part of a wider modernisation programme.
On the factory floor, too, digital skills are increasingly in use. Yorkshire-based Lambert, which employs 185 people, designs and builds automated systems for clients involved in the medical device and fast moving consumer goods markets.
“Access to data around our factory has become the norm,” says Warren Limbert, managing director.
Data terminals allow staff to receive technical support, submit ideas and follow developments within the company. There is also a move towards employees in manufacturing and inspection roles being able to programme specialised computers that control machine tools.
Mr Limbert says that in the next five to 10 years it may no longer be enough for an engineer to be a specialist in just one subject. Digital know-how is an increasingly important part of the role.
“We will need people who are able to work across different technologies, integrating their knowledge of engineering with computer science and data interpretation skills,” he adds.
Paul Stein, director of research and technology at Rolls-Royce, the engineering group which employs 23,000 people in the UK, says: “We see a trend. Does every [engineering] graduate today require knowledge in big data? No, but in time we’ll go further in this direction and recruits will need to be skilled across a number of disciplines.”
“In a five-year timeframe, I think some of our graduates will have to know quite a lot more about digital than now.”