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Collaboration is key to addressing digital skills gap

May 2021

While employers are satisfied with graduates' basic IT abilities, more advanced digital skills are relatively scarce - and this gap can only be closed if industry and universities work together

In today's economy where businesses are increasingly digitised, it is vital that graduates are equipped with the digital skills that employers are looking for. For instance, a study from the European Commission found that 90% of workers in professional careers are required to have basic digital skills, while 50% are required to have specialist skills.1

Recent research from the ISE suggests that graduate employers are generally satisfied with the basic digital and IT skills that graduates bring to the workplace. But respondents also indicated that graduates aren't leaving university with the intermediate and advanced digital skills that employers are looking for to fulfil certain roles.

And these are the skills that will be increasingly required in both tech jobs and non-tech jobs alike as companies across a wide variety of industries continue to adopt digital technologies in order to optimise business operations and increase performance.2

Industry and academia must cooperate

To minimise the risks that a digital skills gap can pose in a more digitised economy, it is absolutely necessary that these skills are taught at all levels of education. Recognising this, some have suggested that it is no longer sufficient to teach digital skills in IT classes alone, but instead, digital literacy should be treated as a 'fourth pillar of education'.3 This is a view shared by employers - in 2018, the CBI reported that the majority of businesses surveyed wanted to see schools developing pupils' digital and IT skills.4

It is equally important that further and higher education institutions work in tandem with employers to align curricula with these emerging needs. However, there is a clear disconnect between the academic and business communities, with a 2018 Bloomberg report indicating that just 38% of corporate respondents said they were actively collaborating with academia to shape curricula.5 Meanwhile, the CBI found that just 25% of the firms they asked reported the same. Government must do more to support such initiatives and encourage cooperation between the two spheres, as this is the only way for HEI's to produce graduates with the digital skills that employers want.6

Research shows that 88% of workplaces have not engaged in any digital skills training for employees, with many indicating that this is due to the high cost.

Steps are being taken in the right direction, with high‑level STEM skills being targeted by the 2018 announcement of a 'Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy‑led £90 million investment in 1,000 new PhD places', 40% of which will aim to boost collaboration between industry and academia. The Institute of Coding also embodies this spirit of collaboration, with industry and academia collaborating to improve digital skills at levels 6 and 7.7

More recently, the Department for Education published their Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth white paper, setting out planned reforms to the further education and technical training system. Employers will play a central role in developing new Local Skills Improvement Plans alongside further education colleges and other providers.8 This is encouraging as it is vital that the solutions for digital skills shortages are based on knowledge of local demand, rather than broad assumptions.

Unlocking the talent within

Although positive strides are being taken in respect to industrial and academic cooperation, this will not be enough to address the immediate needs that employers have. For this reason, it is vital that employers make an effort to upskill and retrain their existing employees. Yet, businesses have not been sufficiently proactive in this regard, with research finding that 88% of workplaces have not engaged in any digital skills training for employees, with many indicating that this is due to the high cost.9

But free resources are available, such as the Accenture digital skills courses on FutureLearn, which include courses in PPC marketing, search engine optimisation (SEO), web analytics, social media marketing and others. Resources such as these can help employers to overcome the cost barrier, especially SMEs who don't have the funds to upskill members of their existing staff. There are also other initiatives in place to help SMEs, many of which are vulnerable due to the pandemic. For instance, The Growth Company have been commissioned by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to help 4,000 SMEs across Greater Manchester to reskill their workforces.10

Graduates can also take it on themselves to utilise the aforementioned digital skills courses to great effect. With many feeling unsure about their career plans after a rocky year, some of which are even looking to change careers11, free courses can be useful for those who may be interested in tech-related careers. The acquisition of such skills will undoubtedly increase a graduate's value within an increasingly digitised economy. Skills in SEO and PPC marketing are highly sought after across various industries, and findings from the most recent edition of the LinkedIn Emerging Jobs report indicate that, alongside such digital marketing skills, the demand for (among others) JavaScript, machine learning and social media marketing skills have continued to rise even throughout the pandemic.12


  1. The complete guide to digital skills, FutureLearn, 2020.
  2. Digital Skills Insights, International Telecommunication Union, 2020.
  3. Growing up with the internet, Select Committee on Communications, 2017.
  5. Taking responsibility for the graduate skills gap, Luminate, 2019.
  6. Two thirds of firms can't fill digital roles, CBI, 2019
  7. Delivering STEM skills for the economy, National Audit office, 2018.
  8. Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, Department for Education, 2021
  9. The complete guide to digital skills, FutureLearn, 2020.
  10. 4,000 SMEs to benefit from £7m to bridge workforce skills gaps, The Growth Company, 2020.
  11. Student and graduates change career plans post-COVID, Luminate, 2021.
  12. LinkedIn Emerging Jobs report, LinkedIn, 2020.

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