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Closing the digital skills gap

Matias Madou at Secure Code Warrior explains why the UK needs a radical shift in its approach to digital training

While the pandemic has presented numerous challenges for many businesses, it also presented unprecedented opportunity. According to a McKinsey & Company study, businesses have surprised themselves with the speed and success of their digital initiatives in response to COVID-19. On average, digital offerings have leapfrogged seven years of progress in a matter of months.

Such rapid transformation has reshaped digital-first professionals like software engineers and developers into hot commodities, but it has become clear that there is not enough talent to keep pace with demand.

The situation is only set to get worse, with recent projections indicating that a further three million new jobs requiring digital skills will be created in the UK by 2025. So what can be done to close the digital skills gap, and how can organisations make the most of their existing talent?

Inspiring the next generation of developers

The UNESCO definition of digital skills is having “a range of abilities to use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information. They enable people to create and share digital content, communicate and collaborate, and solve problems for effective and creative self-fulfillment in life, learning, work, and social activities at large”.

Figures from a report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that computer programming is now the fastest-growing profession in the UK in terms of employee numbers, which is unsurprising as we emerge from the peak of a global pandemic. However, accelerated digitalisation has left businesses in the lurch, with recruitment unable to keep up.

The root of the recruitment problem lies in education. A study by the Learning and Work Institute indicates that Britain’s economic recovery from COVID-19 is at threat from a looming digital skills crisis.

A sharp fall in the number of young people taking IT courses will in turn impact the number of graduates and those equipped with the necessary skills to fulfil developer roles, especially with cybersecurity fundamentals.

Another study commissioned by WorldSkills UK, a charity focused on training young people in digital skills to help them enter the workforce, outlines a number of reasons why IT-focused subjects and careers are not appealing to young people. These range from lack of clearly defined job roles in certain fields and lack of understanding or guidance about potential career paths, to a lack of relatable role models.

While there are some existing initiatives like National Coding Week, an annual event that encourages people to learn new digital skills such as coding, more needs to be done. It is the collective responsibility of the government, teachers, IT leaders and the tech industry at large to equip young people with the understanding and the tools that they need to pursue a career in coding and software development.

It’s not just students and young people that we need to step into digital roles, either. While we need to equip young people with the skills to fulfil future roles, we also need to lean on existing employees, to plug existing gaps. Beyond hiring new talent, organisations should be looking to upskill their existing IT teams to meet demand.

Building a secure digital foundation

Coding is integral to all digital businesses, and a big part of that is building a secure foundation for platforms to run on. For organisations to build more secure systems and safeguard themselves from cyberattacks and subsequent reputational damage, developers need to be given ownership of their vital role in cybersecurity, credit where it’s due for their successes, and ongoing support. They require upskilling, resources and a framework of contextual knowledge highlighting the importance of secure coding.

It’s on business leaders to champion these new approaches to security from the top and empower CISOs, CTOs and security executives to breathe new life into security programmes and developer-centric learning.

On-the-job skills development programmes are often not highly regarded, and often unfairly so. In the case of cybersecurity and many areas of technology, this is simply because developments move so fast, that guides written on the subject will be nearing obsolescence before they are close to completion.

To remain effective, learning needs to be continuous. Developing a dynamic upskilling programme can lead to better coding, and higher skilled developers. Some developer-led programmes use learning tools that become a part of the process itself, issuing alerts if the developer writes code with a known vulnerability, facilitating relevant, digestible teaching moments by explaining how the developer could have completed the same function securely. 

Time for change

There is no silver bullet when it comes to closing the UK’s digital skills gap, but one thing is clear; that it needs to be a collective effort. In today’s economy, change is the only constant, and learning programmes need to reflect that, whether it’s school curriculum or on-the-job development.

Technology obsolescence continues at pace, so it has to become systemic that the government, education and tech industry constantly evaluate the dynamics of future demand, the security implications within, and what skills will be needed in five years time, so we stay one step ahead.

Matias Madou is the Co-Founder & CTO at Secure Code Warrior

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2021

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