22 Jan 2024
by Toby Barnard PGCE MSc BEng(Hons)

Closing the digital skills gap in UK national security: Navigating challenges, embracing change, and ensuring a resilient future

Guest blog by Toby Barnard, Managing Director at QA Learning Government #NatSec2024

The skills gap within national security is not “new news” to those in the community. We face unprecedented times, with external and internal challenges that are making it difficult to reduce the UK skills gaps.

The impact of Covid 19 on the employment market is as relevant today as ever, with greater recognition of the importance of mental health and changes in conditions demanded by employees. Thinks Insights has reported that 55% of UK workers feel work is getting more intense and demanding.

Gen Z employees are bringing different values to the workforce, being much more likely to move roles quickly, often due to the desire for improved work cultures, better wellbeing support and the option of hybrid working.

There are also ongoing issues around gender and ethnic pay and positions parity. Whilst these issues are being addressed, this is not happening quickly enough. This is despite knowledge and studies, including Gartner , that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones by up to 12%, with a corresponding improvement in retention rates and innovation. From my own experiences, I have repeatedly recognised that a diverse team leads to better creativity, ideas, engagement and satisfaction among staff.

And now, the UK faces the current economic landscape that has driven inflation up, with a corresponding reduction in GDP, meaning that less is being spent across many parts of the Public Sector.

The juxtaposition to this is the current geo-political landscape. With the war in Ukraine, and instabilities around the world, the UK requires more digitally skilled employees, capable of building, supporting, managing, and delivering our national security tech, products and services. This is a requirement from Government and the private sector organisations that support it. But unless there is action, and budget, to close the skills gap, and address the issues surrounding the vetting transformation program, there will be a continued increase in the UK skills gap which could result in degradation of the UK's national security capability.

But although this may paint a negative picture, some actions can be taken by the security community to improve the skills and vetting positions.

Vetting: During the COVID lockdown, much more work was conducted using low-side communications and SaaS systems at official. There will always be a need for the High Side, but we should challenge ourselves as to whether the default should be a high level of clearance, or whether we can achieve the same outcomes at a lower level. This would significantly reduce the impact on the vetting community and the ease at which skills could be brought in, rather than relying on the wrong Suitably Qualified and Experienced People, but who have clearance.

Skills: For the skills shortage, there are several options available to us:

  1. Ensuring our workplaces are diverse and inclusive, with a clear corporate strategy for sustainability. This has been proven to improve innovation and intent to stay.
  2. Address the recruitment process and procedures. Reconsider whether having a degree is essential, or is it the inherent propensity for a digital skill that is what’s needed?
  3. Recently, organisations such as consultancy firms supplying Government, have undergone redundancy programmes. Conversely, other companies have been able to anticipate the changing business landscape and investigate whether staff can be reskilled, as opposed to making roles redundant. Just because they may come from another part of the business, shouldn’t preclude them from being considered for reskilling across, especially if they’re a great employee with corporate knowledge.
  4. Look at what skills your staff already have. You may be surprised to find that they can do more than just what’s expected in their current role. Analysis by the OECD  suggests that average labour productivity could be increased by as much as 5% if the level of skills mismatch in the UK was brought into line with OECD best practice levels. This supports the research that organisations should be defined by their employees' skills, as opposed to their roles.


The digital skills gap can be reduced through an influx of suitable qualified and experienced people, but this is highly unlikely to materialise in the short or medium term. Instead, what’s needed is a different approach to managing your workforce, keeping them suitably trained and able to support the requirements of the UK National Security community.

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.

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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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Toby Barnard PGCE MSc BEng(Hons)

Toby Barnard PGCE MSc BEng(Hons)

Managing Director Government Learning , QA Ltd