Closing the Digital Skills Gap: How Apprenticeships Can Help Future-Proof the UK’s Workforce

The UK’s National Coding Week 2023, a campaign week designed to encourage children and adults to learn new digital skills, kicked off last month amidst warnings of the UK’s ongoing inability to address its digital skills gap. The latest research indicates that as many as 88% of UK businesses lack at least one area of digital skills in their staff, with nearly a quarter of employers (23%) struggling to fill gaps in even the most basic digital skills.

At a time when the UK economy is falling behind both the US and the eurozone, this skills gap acts as a drag on the country’s workforce productivity and economic growth potential. A recent report estimated that the average UK employee is losing 2.33 hours per week due to delayed digital adoption, with 53% losing over an hour per week.

Building, Rather Than Buying, Talent

While the focus often falls on the role of educational institutions in addressing the skills gap, we should not underestimate the responsibility of employers — both large and small — to provide direct opportunities for digital upskilling.

In fact, given the premium employers are paying to secure staff with in-demand digital skills, it makes far more sense for businesses to start focusing on building, rather than buying, talent — particularly small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with limited ability to match the salary offerings of larger competitors.

If businesses find that hiring people with the requisite digital skills is too expensive or impossible, the only practical solution is to explore options to train the existing workforce and equip them with these in-demand digital skills.

This is where technical apprenticeships can play a transformative role. Apprenticeships have long since been used in key professions (e.g., financial services, law and accountancy) to help fill the gap between labor supply and labor demand, and they increasingly have a role to play in addressing the UK’s digital skills gap.

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For instance, this month, BPP launched a Data Analytics apprenticeship program specifically designed for those working in a HR function. This was devised in direct response to the growing desire from employers to integrate data skills into their HR departments. In this way, technical apprenticeships can help employers keep pace with technological developments, changing the nature of existing jobs within the company.

The Case for Apprenticeships

While often incorrectly associated with school and college leavers, apprenticeship programs can be designed to offer on-the-job development to professionals at all levels of a business. They can help bridge the gap where external recruitment has stalled or where internal applications are lacking.

If a business faces a critical lack of digital skills, an apprenticeship program could provide staff with opportunities to upskill and move to other areas within the business. Essentially, apprenticeship programs allow existing staff to retrain for promotions and/or lateral moves — helping create new growth opportunities for businesses and demonstrating to employees the value put on their personal and professional development.

An apprenticeship program can equally help address skills gaps by opening new channels to a more diverse and untapped pool of potential candidates which may have been overlooked. For instance, parents looking to re-enter the workforce, the long-term economically inactive or recent graduates may be more inclined to apply for an open apprenticeship over a job with stringent experience or qualification requirements.

The Importance of a Tailored Approach

While an apprenticeship program can be a huge asset and pivotal to long-term growth, this all depends on designing an effective program and creating an environment where apprentices want to stay for a number of years. To incorporate apprenticeship programs into your business effectively in a way that delivers real change, a tailored approach is key.

For instance, business and HR leaders should take the time to research and secure relevant data on the current state of the workforce’s digital skills to identify the areas that need the most attention and set a benchmark for the future. For SMEs with limited resources, this type of strategic thinking to identify key skills gaps is critical — as well as finding the right external training provider to partner with who can help with the creation of a bespoke scheme and offer industry insights into key business skills gaps.

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