Opinion

UK plc needs a technology skilled workforce to remain globally competitive in 2020

Brexit election aftermath

The General Election in December concluded in a huge win for the Conservative Party, and a mandate for the Government to “get Brexit done”. The UK is currently set to leave the EU on 31st January 2020, deal or no deal, and the implications for British businesses will be huge. If all goes to plan, the UK will no longer be bound by the EU’s Common Commercial Policy. We will have to negotiate new trade deals with the EU, our largest trading party, and take advantage of new opportunities with leading economies such as China, India and the United States. Naturally there will be disruption, and a period of readjustment for UK plc, but it is too early to predict the implications of our departure on the economy and our 5.7 million private sector companies.

It is clear though that the business community cannot rest on its laurels. At the November CBI annual conference, Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn called for a “relentless focus on competitiveness” to ensure the UK does not risk losing out globally. Currently the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the UK as the ninth most competitive nation. thanks in part to our macro-economic stability, highly educated workforce. and large labour supply. Yet there is no question we could be doing better. In a post Brexit world, businesses will have to be become leaner, hungrier, and utilise every trick in the book to stay ahead of its competition.

 

Skills for Competitiveness

According to a recent study by global skills development body City & Guilds Group, employers in rapidly emerging economies are among those most likely to ramp up investment in upskilling their workforce in the near future when compared to developed economies such as the UK. Furthermore only 42% of employers in the UK recognise the impact of digital transformation on their business. This should be of great concern to all businesses. In this new technology age, any decision not to prioritise investment in skills will enable our more tech minded neighbours to leapfrog ahead of us

Understanding and integrating new technology into the workplace will be critical in preventing this. Yet worryingly, the UK’s current ICT adoption, and the digital skills of its workforce, are ranked 31st and 29th respectively by the WEF, in comparison to the other 35 member countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

 

I.T. is not a back-office function…

Clearly many business leaders in the UK do recognise the importance of digital transformation and upskilling, but just need assistance and guidance as to the best steps to take.  Those companies that would rather prioritise investment in other areas will be put under great duress as new trade deals are struck, and new, technology minded competitors enter the marketplace. Unfortunately for the more luddite minded companies, technological innovations have increased rapidly since 2015 and look to have no signs of stopping. Even tech savvy companies are increasingly playing catch-up and there are few that can be considered to be one step ahead of the curve, unless they are already rooted in the tech sphere.

 

Stepping into the future

To ensure UK businesses grow and prosper in the uncertain times ahead, they must take the step of making technology a board level imperative. and its leverage rightly seen as a market differentiator. For example, being aware of, and implicitly understanding how cloud-based applications can help inform a business’s decision-making regarding where, and how to engage customers, as well as which services to offer them.

Business have a number of options to support their transformation into a technology conversant company. Hiring skilled and skilled employees being one of them. Unfortunately, there is a high demand for tech minded talent and many companies will be left frustrated trying to find the talent or even understanding exactly who they need to hire and why. Earlier this year the Open University’s “Bridging the Digital Divide” report found that 88% of organisations said they had a shortage of digital skills – and that this was already harming the ability of UK businesses to compete internationally.

An alternative option that many companies are pursuing is hiring contractors to educate and advise them regarding the benefits of digital transformation and the most cost-effective means to achieve it. Companies looking to pursue this option should expect to see any contracting partnership as a relationship with an eventual end goal. The goal being their business become digitally self-sufficient, via employees who have been well trained and versed in modern technology and its uses. This is especially important given the government has reaffirmed plans to introduce new “IR35” legislation from April 2020 allowing HMRC to collect additional payment where a contractor is an employee in all but name.

 

Working together to drive forward the UK

Whether you take the time to hire someone internally to maximise the advantages of technology or utilise a consultant in the short-term to kickstart change, there is no question that remodelling your organisation along technological lines takes time and effort. Despite this most companies do understand the need to transform their I.T. systems and processes to ensure they are ready for the challenges of modern business, and the requirements of their customers. Doing so is also vital for the personal development of their employees who have the opportunity to retrain and develop skills that are highly in demand.

Going forward, hard work, perseverance and an indomitable spirit will not be enough for businesses to navigate the rocky road ahead. Digital transformation must be embraced, and people trained to understand and leverage it to ensure the UK becomes a confident, competitive, “digital first” nation. UK companies simply dipping their toes into digital won’t cut it anymore. To secure this future, the government, education providers and UK plc must work together to empower our current workforce and future workforce, so they are ready to position the UK as a leader in the global marketplace. Investment in private and public sector retraining programmes will be needed, as well as universities and apprenticeship programmes. By developing the right skills to bridge the knowledge gap of British business, we will not only ensure a healthy competitive economy that punches above its weight, but also safeguard jobs and skills.

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