The potential for technological change to unlock new opportunities for British businesses is closely linked to ensuring people have access to the skills and expertise they need to navigate the new world of work. However, research from Atos has found that a digital skills gap has become a major obstacle for businesses as they seek to expand, with many citing it as one of the biggest barriers to future growth. The scale of this skills shortfall is not uniform across Britain, with significant regional variation meaning businesses in some parts of the UK have greatly reduced scope for growth unless this gap can be closed. If we can broaden access to digital skills and expertise, local economies across the UK stand to benefit enormously as we move out of lockdown and back to economic growth, but only if we act quickly to provide the tools businesses need to flourish into the future.
The strength of a business is determined by the talents of its people – and this is especially true for SMEs. The longstanding employee, the apprentice, the graduate trainee, the director, the contractor, the consultant – and many other types of worker – make entrepreneurship and enterprise happen. Furthermore, the skills that the post-COVID generation will require must be fostered now, enabling businesses to move swiftly towards new ways of working and collaborating through the use of digital tools.
As digital technology continues to change the world around us, further transformation in the way workers approach their jobs should be expected: new skills will be needed. A recent British Chambers of Commerce survey found 84% of firms stated that digital and IT skills are more important to their businesses than two years ago, yet three in four businesses are facing a shortage of digital skills in their workforce.
Our recent report Unleashing Great British Enterprise examined what drives entrepreneurial success, and we found that a lack of available skills is repeatedly held up as a barrier to business growth. For businesses that already have employees, staff recruitment and skills issues come behind only competition, regulation and tax as the biggest barriers to growth.
Atos’s research has also found that there is a large variation in qualification levels in the local economies of towns and cities across the UK. At the same time, there are big differences in the skills outcomes of local areas. This highlights a real threat that some regions of the UK will see their SMEs lose out to businesses that have easier access to those with the skills needed to power their future growth.
We have considered a number of ways to encourage the use of digital technology to drive improvement in the local economies of towns and cities across the UK. Central to this is the creation of new Enterprise Zones. This new generation of Enterprise Zones, based upon digital technology, would give towns and cities the tools to unleash their local digital economies, levelling up digital skills and enhancing local digital infrastructure. This is even more important in the context of the UK working to restore economic growth in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The prize for enabling the UK’s entrepreneurs and enterprises with productivity-enhancing digital capability is significant. Atos’s research suggests that the national economy would benefit to the tune of £34bn a year by 2030 if the local economies of the towns and cities in our analysis were to realise the full potential of digital technology over the next decade.
At a time when the world of work is changing out of all recognition, it is essential to ensure businesses are equipping their staff with the skills they need in order to continue to flourish. We have shown that there is a huge opportunity for the UK economy if we provide easy access to the skills training and resources that our SMEs so urgently need. Seizing this opportunity has the potential to unlock a digital dividend from which the whole of the UK can benefit.
Jude Satchell-Foley is HR Director - Center of Expertise at Atos UK&I
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