Justin Cooke, Chief Content and Partnerships Officer at FutureLearn, discusses how COVID has expedited the Government’s response to upskilling and reskilling the workforce to tackle the digital skills gap
Last week the Chancellor announced in his 2020 Summer Statement a new £2 billion ‘Kickstart’ scheme to help open up new jobs for 16-24-year-olds who are at risk of long-term unemployment, as well as bonuses for employees who hire trainees and apprentices.
This scheme comes in response to fears about the long term economic impact of the pandemic, particularly among young people. The need for such a scheme was highlighted by research from the Resolution Foundation which found that young people are most likely to have lost work or seen their income drop because of COVID-19, with more than one in three 18 to 24-year-olds earning less than before the outbreak.
A challenge that pre-dates COVID-19
While the Kickstart scheme has been a welcome step in the right direction, the need to upskill the future workforce is an issue that long predates the pandemic.
The government had indeed started laying foundations to address skills shortages within the workforce, through forward-looking initiatives such as the Institute of Coding, a government-funded consortium designed to tackle the UK’s digital skills gap.
More recently, in response to the pandemic, the Department for Education launched The Skills Toolkit, a collection of high-quality online resources – which includes digital and workplace skills courses built by Accenture, as well as the Institute of Coding and the University of Leeds, in partnership with FutureLearn – geared towards those looking to professionally upskill during lockdown.
But as we look ahead to life beyond the pandemic, it is crucial that the government builds on the momentum of these initiatives and continues to address the underlying barriers, especially regarding access to the right soft and digital skills training, that are negatively impacting unemployment rates amongst young people.
Developing skills for the workplace of the future
Research has found time and again that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of opportunities for young people to gain the necessary digital and soft skills for the modern and the future workplace.
According to a 2019 study from Luminate, a third of vacancies (33%) in the UK were considered hard to fill due to lack of required skills, qualifications or experience among applicants and research from Pearson found that employers feel graduates are not ready for the workplace, with many not possessing crucial soft skills such leadership, negotiation and strategy and planning.
Digital skills are also in high demand, with 82% of job vacancies requiring digital skills, and roles requiring digital skills paying 29% more than those that don’t. This demand has only been exacerbated by the pandemic, with IT remaining the leading area of recruitment in the UK since March, and a clear spike in IT job advertisements as lockdown has eased.
On top of this, a survey from Graduate Coach, the UK’s leading graduate coaching company, also found that 90% of students don’t know how to create an employer-ready CV, how to interview well or what career would suit them best. As well as equipping young people with the soft and technical skills for the workplace, students also need to be given better access to educational material that teaches them how to actually search and apply for the jobs of today that suit the skills they either already have or are able to develop.
Building a longer-term skills strategy
What is clear is that creating jobs for young people is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tackling the present jobs and skills crisis. As such, the government will need to develop initiatives in line with a longer-term, ‘big picture’ strategy, with a clearer focus on creating pathways into jobs through skills development, while implementing workable solutions that address widespread skills shortages and help young people remain competitive across their careers.
This will involve signposting existing resources that have already been helping to solve these exact challenges, as well as continuing to build and invest in flexible and accessible skills initiatives, which will ultimately help the nation strengthen its workforce and economy for a post-COVID future.