Tackling the global digital skills crisis

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The global digital skills crisis is worsening and here’s why – in 10 years time, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the jobs of 1.2 billion employees worldwide – the equivalent of half of the global workforce – will have undergone varying levels of change due to the adoption of technologies, such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI). 

While most staff will operate alongside machines rather than being replaced by them (only 5% of the workforce), a huge nine out of 10 will require digital skills to be able to work effectively, exacerbating a shortage of expertise that is already troubling. 

To make matters worse, another WEF report entitled ‘Accelerating the Digital Inclusion in the New Normal’ indicates that 47% of the world’s population currently remains “unconnected”. This means that in lower-income economies, an average of only 32% of the population has basic digital skills, which includes being able to send emails. 

Even in higher-income economies, the figure rises to less than two thirds at only 62%, before dropping back down to 44% in relation to standard skill levels, which includes being able to create an electronic presentation.

So on the face of it, the situation does not look good. However, initiatives are taking place all around the world in a bid to do something about it. At a panel event during techUK’s London Tech Week conference, spokespeople from the European Union, Singapore and India all talked about the work being undertaken in their areas to boost digital skills uptake.

European Union

In the European Union (EU), 44% of citizens lack basic digital skills. But even among people with medium to advanced skill levels, there is still inadequate expertise in fields like data analysis, particularly in industries that are considered key to the future, such as advanced manufacturing. Vincenzo Renda, Senior Policy Manager for Digital Industrial Transformation at DigitalEurope, a membership body representing the digital tech industry, explains:

In advanced manufacturing, there’s a lot of machinery with sensors but we don’t have enough operators or technicians to understand what these digital solutions do. So there’s a strong need to ensure that the existing workforce has the skills not just at shop floor level but also among people like mechanical engineers as they need to know about data and how to interpret it.

As to what is being done to address this situation, he cites a number of examples: The Finnish government, for example, worked together with industry and academia to create a six-week-long massive open online course (Mooc) called “Elements of AI’, which it unveiled in 2018. 

The aim was to encourage 1% of the 5.5 million-strong Finnish population to learn the basics of AI, but the course has now officially been made available to members of other European Union states – although the lack of geographic restrictions means it can actually be accessed globally. 

A second EU-funded initiative, meanwhile, comprises the Sector Skills Alliances. These Alliances consist of a consortium of public and private sector organisations from at least three EU countries. 

Their role is to identify labour market needs and support the design and delivery of both transnational vocational and training content as well as teaching and training methodologies at the local level. In a tech context, the three key areas of focus consist of blockchain, cybersecurity and software services.

But Renda is also a fan of the European Center for the Development of Vocational Training’s AI-based skills forecasting software, although he points out: 

We’re not pumping enough into forecasting what future skills we’ll need by looking at existing data and drawing inferences from it as to skills requirements over the next five to 10 years. But the advantage of doing so is that it helps better prepare training systems by pointing out the direction of travel going forward and helping providers align future offerings.

Singapore

Singapore takes very seriously the WEF’s contention that the half-life of any job skill is five years.  As a result, the government encourages the practice of lifelong learning among its 5.9 million citizens and provides each of them with annual credits to support this upskilling process. 

It also offers 25,000 online courses, 6,000 of which focus on key topics that the state is keen to focus on moving forward: data analysis, digital media and advanced manufacturing. But a number of initiatives have likewise been introduced to provide a skills leg-up to those who might need it. 

For example, the government’s Future Skills programme includes a Career Conversion scheme for mid-career workers, which it sees as being demographically most prone to digital disruption given their current experience and salary levels. The initiative, which is 70%-subsidised, consists of a mix of classroom and on-the-job training and helps with new job placements if required.

A second, COVID-19-related scheme, which is 80% funded by the government, is likewise intended to support 100,000 young graduates – the equivalent of 3% of the total workforce – as they have been most affected employment-wise by the pandemic. 

In order to make such initiatives as relevant as possible, both were born of a public-private partnership arrangement. With a similar idea in mind, the government has also started working with long-term resident, big tech vendors, such as Google, in a bid to boost employment elsewhere too. 

In July, the two partners launched a news jobs and skills training initiative called the Skills Ignition SG, which consists of two different schemes.  The first targeted 2,400 mid-career professionals, who are being given the chance to upskill by attending full-time training courses in cloud computing and digital marketing. Each course lasts for six months and participants receive a monthly training allowance of US$1,097. 

The second programme provides 600 job-seekers and graduates with three months of online vocational training followed by six months of on-the-job training opportunities and a further six months of hands-on work experience. Google will offer 100 employment places and the rest will be provided by key partners. 

But even despite these initiatives, YC Choy, Regional Vice President of the Economic Development Board of Singapore, still believes the city-state has a long way to go skills-wise if it is to truly become the commercial, tech and innovation hub it aspires to be. What it really requires, he says, is individuals not just with digital skills, but also with sector expertise – especially in fields, such as healthcare, biotech, and energy sustainability – and sufficient knowledge and experience of working with data to know how to unlock its value. As a result, he states:

A solution is not that simple. There’s a global bottleneck and competition between different countries, industries and companies. So this is an offer and call to action to create digital unicorn talent. To do so, we need cross-pollination across different entities, such as innovation centres and universities in places like Singapore and London. This means different countries coming together and working on a talent pipeline to enlarge the pie for everyone.

India

India’s digital skills challenges are quite different from those of more developed countries in that, far from having an ageing workforce, it is expected to add 100 million people to its current working population of 470 million over the next 10 years. 

Some 4.3 million of these workers are currently employed in the tech industry, a sector that Amit Aggarwal, Vice President and Chief Executive of the IT-ITES sector skills council and co-architect of the National Association of Software and Service Companies’ Future Skills platform, describes as “one of the country’s shining lights”. But he also acknowledges that a high percentage of India’s population currently lacks even basic digital skills, despite the benefits technology could bring in terms of improving citizen services, such as healthcare.

Nonetheless, he says that the country, after being “inspired” by Singapore’s actions, is now launching a programme to provide scholarships to 400,000 individuals in order to help them learn about emerging technologies. Some tech companies and training providers are also being good corporate citizens by offering people digital courses for free or at a discount, while academic institutions are likewise providing virtual skills training. 

But, like Choy, Aggarwal believes much could be gained at a global level by collaboration:

Like the AI course in Finland, once it’s built it can be used by every citizen in the world at very little incremental cost. So local countries could develop a platform and then open up their educational resources to help reskill people across the world. It’s possibly about a year and a half away from everything being solid enough, but if everyone made public resources for the world, we’d all get a lot of value.

My take

While each country and region may have come up with its own solutions for how to best support digital skills development, a clear message to come out of the discussion was that ultimately collaboration is the most effective way forwards. In other words, this is a global problem and so, rather than reinvent the wheel in multiple countries across the world, everyone would benefit from learning from each others’ lessons, experience and offerings. Because as we all know, the whole is always so much better than the sum of its parts.

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