Developing digital skills is crucial, but don’t forget the basics too

Developing digital skills is crucial, but don’t forget the basics too


Tiempo de lectura: 6 minuto(s).

The digital skills gap has been at the forefront of European leaders’ agendas for several years now. Indeed, in 2022 the European Union’s European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) launched the Deep Tech Talent Initiative, which it hoped would upgrade the deep tech skills of around a million people across the continent.

Deep tech skills were chosen because of the belief that these skills will be at the cutting edge of technical innovation in the coming years. The initiative builds on the EU’s “Digital Decade”, which has skills at the forefront of plans to ensure digital success is felt across Europe by 2030. The skills part of this initiative is even more ambitious than the Deep Tech Talent Initiative and aims to upskill 20 million people in ICT disciplines. The aim is to plug the talent gap in areas like cybersecurity, data science, and AI.

Cutting edge

The EU is far from alone in this quest to improve the digital skills of people across the world. Indeed, tech giant Microsoft recently pledged to improve the digital skills of 25 million people in a bid to help plug a tech skills gap that the company believes could be as high as 150 million people by 2025.

In many ways, this focus on advanced skills makes sense. After all, recent research from the University of Oxford found that developing AI-related skills could provide an earnings boost of up to 40%.

“We know we never apply skills in isolation,” the researchers explain. “Using this data, we saw which proficiencies were most sought after and which sets were in demand together. This allowed us to give skills and complementary skills a financial value based on the demands of the labor market.”

They found that AI skills are particularly valuable because they can be easily combined with other equally important skills. For instance, the researchers explain that data analytics skills are extremely valuable because they can be coupled with other highly valued skills, such as machine learning.

“Conceptualizing the relationship between skills as a network enabled us to show the context dependency of human capital,” the researchers explain. “Our findings have profound implications for individuals, businesses, and policymakers. By recognizing the value of complementarity, we can better guide workers on their individual reskilling journeys in times of technological change.”

The bottom of the pyramid

Of course, while a lot of attention is, perhaps understandably, given to advanced digital skills, it’s notable that the Digital Decade also talks about improving more rudimentary skills across 80% of the EU population. The importance of providing support to the bottom of the skills pyramid was underlined by EU data showing that nearly half of the population lacked even basic digital skills.

There is considerable merit to this focus on the entire spectrum of digital skills, as data produced by tech company Cisco and the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) showed how communities that have often been left behind by the modern, globalized economy, can catch up. They found that improving basic digital skills would greatly improve the employment prospects of around 1.7 million people in the United Kingdom. What’s more, this could potentially bolster the economy by over £45 billion.

That 80% of these benefits would accumulate in places outside of the traditional innovation hubs of capital cities and university towns shows how beneficial focusing on a wide range of skills development could be across the whole of society. Indeed, research focusing on deprived communities in England and France shows that basic digital skills are often a fundamental entry point to accessing key aspects of modern society, from jobs and training to banking and healthcare.

Getting employers on board

The CEBR research highlights three buckets of skills that they believe are “Essential Digital Skills”. The first is EDS foundational skills, like accessing the internet. The second is EDS for life, which involves online transactions and engagement, and the third is EDS for work, focusing on using basic digital tools for business.

Achieving this kind of multi-dimensional upskilling in society will require employers to be on board. While data suggests that companies are investing a growing amount in upskilling initiatives, there is little evidence that the investment is effective. Indeed, much of the investment has gone into technology platforms that succumb to the “if we build it, they shall come” fallacy. Such investments fail to appreciate how and why people engage in digital upskilling.

Research from behavioral scientists at MoreThanNow and Vodafone found that framing upskilling in terms of one’s career relevance and security had the biggest impact on both enrollment and completion. Indeed, respondents in this group were about 5% more likely to do the reskilling than those who received other forms of messaging around personal growth or enjoyable learning.

To get people on board with the need to learn new skills, they suggest using a language that hits on our fear of losing out. They found that we’re more likely to take action when we think about what we might lose rather than what we could gain.

It’s increasingly clear that we need to increase the digital literacy not just of those at the top of society but people across every spectrum so that they can both drive us forward and also ensure that people can actively participate in our increasingly digital life. To borrow from the famous Chinese proverb, the best time to invest in digital skills was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

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