The digital skills agenda is in vogue like never before. Much is being done to encourage young people to realise the potential that comes from having grown up with the internet. Nothing says this more than the arrival of computing on the primary school curriculum this September.
Britain is waking up to the fact that digital literacy is as important to the future as maths and English. But this awakening can’t come soon enough. We’ve still got a way to go if we are to create the conditions that will deliver a prosperous future for young people and, ultimately, the UK.
Simply put, we’re in danger of missing the mark if the digital skills agenda remains exclusively focused on up-skilling young people.
Young people are brilliant. They are brave, ambitious and possess native digital talent that we need to nurture. They are the future fuel of our economy. But it’s not only our approach to training young people that we need to challenge and change.
Young people lack the support network to allow them to put their digital expertise to practical use. Too many parents have analogue ambitions for their children and too many businesses are still paying lip service to digital transformation.
Let me explain what I mean by these challenges.
An estimated two million jobs are already attributable to business and commercial activity delivered through digital technology, and digital activity already contributes over 10pc of the national economy – a proportion that is steadily increasing.
As children decide on study choices, how many parents can help them choose the options that mean they benefit from the digital economy? Parents I speak to know their children’s futures will be driven by the digital economy but they don’t know what skills will be prized.
They need to be digitally confident to help them guide their families to the right career choices so that they benefit from the growth in our digital industries.
Time-poor parents already struggle with the homework burden and from September a new subject will be brought home – computing.
Even at Key Stage One, the new curriculum will expect children aged five to seven to understand what algorithms are, create and debug simple programs and use technology to create, organise, store, manipulate and retrieve digital content. Parents want to help and need to be comfortable with the basics of programming to aid their children’s learning.
If the support that parents provide is paramount, so is the supply of digital opportunities for young people.
Businesses must plug their digital skills gaps. Our figures suggest they are not doing so. At O2 we recently looked afresh at the digital skills gap facing our economy and we found that 745,000 additional workers with digital skills will be needed by 2017.
A fifth of those additional digitally skilled jobs, between 169,000 and 182,000, could be captured by young people aged 25 or under entering the workforce for the first time or retraining from other roles.
How many organisations can say they are effectively future-proofing their businesses by skilling and recruiting additional workers with digital skills?
Already, the minimum digital skills for anyone entering the workforce need to be more than just computer literacy. It’s not just about being able to use technology, but to apply it to make your business better and the working lives of your colleagues smarter.
Proficiency in programming and the use of social media to understand customers are becoming essential building blocks.
Our economy does not have the luxury of waiting for the young people who will benefit from the new computing curriculum to come on to the jobs market. We urgently need to tackle these challenges to create the conditions that will deliver a prosperous future for the UK.
First, we need to see more businesses giving our young digital natives the opportunity to capitalise on their digital skills.
Youth unemployment is reducing at last, but 16-to-24s are still disproportionately affected by unemployment, as Allister Heath recently highlighted in these pages.
I know how important under-25s are to my business and it’s why we are creating 30,000 opportunities over three years for young people to get work experience and why we recently opened the Think Big Hub, a new workspace which will help 3,000 young people this year alone develop digital skills and gain access to employability training.
Secondly, we need more businesses to adopt digital ways of operating. There’s lots of talk about the agile tech start-up, but we need to create the same level of dynamism in our large organisations if we are to reach our full potential and compete on a global stage.
By this, I mean enabling employees to work easily on the move and, with data underpinning so many services today, creating real-time access to information that improves the way businesses serve their customers – whether that’s smart stock planning in retail or offering targeted location-based offers using live footfall data.
A study we commissioned from the Centre for Economic and Business Research earlier this year found the country is missing out on growth to the tune of £30bn due to long-term inefficiencies in our biggest businesses and public sector organisations.
That’s a staggering cost that stems largely from a lack of access to the right technology. It’s a wake-up call for employers to commit to better understand their own connectivity deficit and act on it.
Thirdly, we need to get better at re-training existing workforces. The good news is that many of these employees, in their 30s and 40s, will also be parents. I believe we will see more reverse mentoring where young digital natives are paired with older workers to help them adapt.
At O2, we believe every successful larger enterprise takes disruptive inspiration from the way smaller businesses operate. Wayra, our start-up incubator, gives us a ringside seat on this as well as the chance to scale innovation for all our 23m customers.
We must work harder to shift perception, build confidence and demonstrate the value of collectively nurturing a truly digital generation. Failing to do so will result in us choking our own potential, ultimately failing our young people and stifling economic growth.