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A digital skills crisis is brewing among our young people

This article originally appeared in The Times on Thursday 10th November 2022

This time next week the Chancellor will be on his feet in Parliament, with policies designed to balance the country’s books. But that is only part of the story. The bigger question is where tomorrow’s growth will come from. I believe the answer lies in investing further and faster in digital skills.


Business leaders are wrestling with digital transformation spurred on by a pandemic in which our online lives took on new significance. Consequently, the demand for digital skills has soared, with Salesforce, the software giant, predicting nine in ten of all jobs will require digital expertise by 2030.


Yet those skills just don’t exist in the UK in anything like the numbers needed when our business, The&Partnership, recently asked YouGov to survey those aged 16 to 24 on their readiness for work, 85 per cent felt they left school without the capabilities they needed for today’s digital-forward jobs.


Modern companies need to be where modern customers are, and increasingly that’s online. Brands will be built, commerce will take place, on platforms such as Google, Amazon, Salesforce and Meta. A modern workforce, conversant in all of the above, is just the cost of doing business. For our marketing and advertising clients, the likes of Toyota, Mars, The Coca-Cola Company and British Gas, we need young people who can create for TikTok, harness influencers on Instagram and build exciting retail environments in the Metaverse. Knowing your way round virtual Amazon matters more than where you went on your gap year.


At The&Partnership, we stopped talking about ‘digital’ as a separate part of our business and made it integral to everything we do. That shift largely explains the 20 per cent average annual growth we’ve achieved over the past seven years. Now that growth has become its own challenge as demand for tech savvy talent outstrips supply.


We’ve sought to address this digital deficit by launching The&Academy in September. Our own centre of excellence for digital and media apprenticeships, it partners with the best in the business, Google, Meta, TikTok and others. Initially with 22 full-time apprentices, they’re based at a purpose-built campus in Digbeth, Birmingham, and are learning their craft in the Metaverse. Over time we envisage similar centres in Manchester and Edinburgh, as well as the 40 other countries in which we operate.


Two prime ministers ago, the government published its Digital Strategy, highlighting a digital skills gap that costs the UK economy £63 billion each year. Employers say only 48 per cent of people leaving full-time education have the advanced digital skills required. Our survey is further evidence from young people that they lack capabilities and confidence at the point they’re considering next steps in their careers and education.


Government has moved far too slowly for businesses getting to grips with pandemic-accelerated digital transformation. As well as renewed investment and focus, we need a mindset change. Instead of believing “digital” is a separate sector of the economy, we need recognition from the prime minister and chancellor that these skills will soon underpin all careers and businesses. Ultimately, we need more tangible action to become a growing economic powerhouse, fuelled by the digitally literate talent that tomorrow really needs.


Johnny Hornby is founder, global chief executive and chairman of The&Partnership

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