22 Jan 2024
by Karen Fletcher

A digital and diverse workforce is in the national interest

Guest blog by Karen Fletcher, Technology and Innovation Solution Architect at Oracle #NatSec2024

Addressing the digital skills gap within national security is dependent on having a diverse, skilled, and vetted workforce, both private and public sector, in a rewarding and inclusive environment.

Between 2010-2015 the government provided £35 million to fund programmes to address the digital skills gap. The gap remains. Forbes reports that businesses consider the top reasons being the pace of technological change coupled with training and development of the workforce. This ‘gap’ is manifesting as a strategic challenge in National Security, where technology is playing a greater role and is exacerbated by laborious vetting process. Simply put, demand is outstripping supply. Yet, significant work is being done to increase the general standard of digital skills. Cyber skills in children are already being encouraged in the UK, mainly via outreach activities, such as the NCSC’s Cyber First. In the private sector there are already organisations trying to address the digital skills shortage, such as WithYouWithMe, a fantastic organisation that helps refugees, veterans, and military spouses to name a few.

What else can be done to address the digital skills gap for national security?

Fresh, objective, and comprehensive analysis is required across government, academia, and industry to baseline the standard of digital skills of the workforce against current and future technologies. This collection of meaningful data will show where there are gaps – across sectors and geographies – in skills, knowledge, and experience. This analysis can form the baseline across government programme requirements.  This is a strategic approach, affording resource to those areas which need it most.

You don’t have to be technical to work in technology.

Digital skills and basic cyber hygiene must be taught in primary schools but should also be included in all educational levels. Children need this to be conducted in a manner that captures their imagination. Digital lessons should include examples of digital careers, what they entail, as not all digital roles are technical, and where a digital career can take you. Soft skills needed in all digital/office roles should also be included in digital lessons. Within these lessons, games should be created for neurodiverse children, diagnosed or not, to help them develop and showcase their skills, confirming diversity as a benefit within the technology industry, whilst encouraging a more neurodiverse workforce. A concept of ‘Technical Superheroes’ so that children could admire people in the digital world might be formative in shaping their ideas of career and purpose. Equally, world altering digital transformation should be included in history lessons. Finally, there should be a Cyber Day that’s mandatory in primary schools to build the nation’s love for digital and cyber from an early age whilst increasing digital resilience and online safety.  Industry partners can, and should, do more.

Oracle provides the Oracle Academy which is free for all educational organisations. There are also charities such as TeenTech, who help 8–18-year-olds understand the opportunities in STEM industries, with lively, focused initiatives helping children understand their potential and raise their aspirations. At the start of a TeenTech event, in May 2023, 24% of students asked said they may pursue a career in technology, after the one-day event it rose to 84%. Without such events they probably would not have considered a cyber career as selecting GCSEs in school is limited to 5 options. 

If you couldn’t fail, how big would you dream?

We need to provide more free and safe spaces for children, outside schools, to expand their digital interests and skills. E.g., Local Authority planning considerations for innovation centres must have a dedicated area for the public including 3D printers and other technologies that are not readily available. This instils curiosity and wonder at digital innovation that we need in the digital workforce. In such spaces children could expand on ideas that inspired them, while companies within the innovation space or local ecosystem could provide projects for them to work on. This will provide a positive and creative learning environment along with valuable examples for future CVs. Initially these should be placed in geographical areas that are high in minorities within the population, again increasing diversity within digital skills in national security. These spaces should also be utilised during school hours by adults upskilling while transitioning into the cyber workforce from other careers. 

Vetting: Cause and Effect?

Whilst the two challenges, digital skills and vetting, are correlated, their relationship is not causal. The digital skills gap impacts the workforce in terms of ‘starting standard’ but has not caused the challenges in the vetting process. The vetting process is struggling due, in part, to COVID. More resources are required, including a digital transformation of systems, and potentially using Artificial Intelligence during the initial stages. The vetting process needs to be clearly communicated in a jargon free manner at ‘digital drop-ins’ within innovation centres or community areas. The UK should make all secondary school children aware that there is a vetting process and what it is for to reduce misunderstanding and suspicion of it.  This should improve not only the number of candidates and the success rate of the vetting process.

Industry can help here once again: a consortium of providers could collaborate with government on a public sector work scheme. This scheme would provide technology employment or secondment for potential government employees (under the Cabinet Office) whilst they are in the vetting process. This would provide individuals with skills and experience, and a salary. Industry suppliers should create government incentivised schemes to allow mid-career transitions, enhancing diversity thinking and ensuring critical skills are available. Equally, creation of harmonised career streams would allow the workforce to move around more freely. This allows critical skills and experience to originate within the system, alleviating the pressure on the vetting process. Finally, government needs to improve retention of national security related digital staff by providing packages that are competitive with the private sector.

techUK’s National Security Week 2024 #NatSec2024

The National Security team are delighted to be hosting our annual National Security Week between Monday, 22 January 2024, and Friday, 26 January 2024.

Read all the insights here.

National Security Programme

techUK's National Security programme aims to lead debate on new and emerging technologies which present opportunities to strengthen UK national security, but also expose vulnerabilities which threaten it. Through a variety of market engagement and policy activities, it assesses the capability of these technologies against various national security threats, developing thought-leadership on topics such as procurement, innovation, diversity and skills.

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Karen Fletcher

Karen Fletcher

Technology and Innovation Solution Architect, Oracle