Expert Insights: The Global Digital Skills Gap

Increasing digitalisation has changed the nature of work, making digital skills an essential attribute for the modern workforce. However, the demand for digital skills is outpacing the supply, creating a global digital skills ‘gap’. RAND Europe researchers Salil Gunashekar and Carolina Feijao discuss what is driving the digital skills gap and how organisations could address the issue.

Transcript

Catherine McShane

Welcome to RAND Europe's Expert Insights podcast, in which we discuss our latest research and look more in-depth at some of the pressing policy issues of the day. I'm Cat McShane from RAND Europe, and in this audio session we will be discussing a recently released study on the global digital skills gap. On the program today, are Salil Gunashekar, who is the associate director of the Science and Emerging Technology team at RAND Europe, and he will be speaking along with his colleague and fellow report author Carolina Feijao, who's the analyst in the Science and Emerging Technology team. Let's get started. Salil, can you explain why this research topic is so important right now?

Salil Gunashekar

Yes, of course, Cat. Employees across the world, they need a range of digital skills to work with new technologies and also to keep up to date with the different technological advancements that are happening. But while rapid and widespread digitalization of the workplace is boosting the demand for digital skills, the supply of digital skills is low and businesses often struggle to find talent to fill digital roles. So to put it simply, there are just not enough people with the right digital skills to enable the transformation that companies are seeking.

Now, although this issue has been simmering for a few years now, the digital skills gap, or mismatch, has become even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, with companies and indeed whole industries shifting jobs and work online. Therefore, more than ever, there is an urgency to address the digital skills gap, not least to ensure that countries have the industries and businesses they need to keep pace with the rate and scale of which technological innovations are being developed and implemented to ensure long-term economic growth.

Catherine McShane

Thanks, Salil. So what then was this study specifically looking at?

Salil Gunashekar

Well, against this backdrop, we conducted a study to examine the various factors driving the global digital skills gap. The research, which was commissioned by Salesforce, used a focused literature review to try and better understand whether and why the gap is widening and to see what can be done. So to see what are some of the practical actions that are being taken to close the digital skills gap.

Catherine McShane

So what would be really interesting now, then, is to find out what were the main findings of the study. Carolina, can you explain what they are?

Carolina Feijao

Yes, of course, Cat. So there are a number of factors that come into play here that are driving the digital skills gap. Firstly, employers are actively seeking employees with digital skills in order to adapt to an increasingly digitalized environment, particularly in the light of the impact of COVID-19. Now, COVID has amplified the urgency to create conditions which effectively use digital solutions for both virtual work and commerce. However, as Salil alluded to, the supply of digital talent is not keeping pace with demand, particularly as there are shortages in the number of graduates in ICT related fields and just a general lack of engagement of young people in digital skills training at school, as well as in further education and apprenticeships.

And secondly, it also seems that potential digital talent is being overlooked because of educational and qualification barriers. And there is also unequal access to digital infrastructure and skills because of people's socioeconomic status. There is a digital divide, a growing gap between those who have digital skills and those who have not. And interestingly, while traditional degrees remain the conventional pathway to working in ICT roles, a more holistic view is needed to identify and leverage the transferable skills needed. So traditional types of education alone may not be keeping up with employer's needs for digital skills.

And thirdly, besides digital skills, soft skills, foundation skills, such as for example, as numeracy or literacy and certain types of cognitive skills are also needed to help workers adapt to changing work environments and enable effective use of digital technologies. Now, such use can include information processing, self-direction, problem-solving, as well as communication.

Catherine McShane

That's really interesting. So then what do these findings mean, then, for employers and organizations? What can they do to close the digital skills gap?

Salil Gunashekar

Yeah, so there are some important steps that organizations can take to build up digital skills in their workforce, and it's really vital that the different stakeholders involved in this consider long-term skills demand that they work with each other and take an inclusive holistic approach to the issue. And in our report, we articulated a set of core actions that organizations are taking or could take in the future to specifically address the digital skills gap. So this includes changing hiring practices towards becoming more skill-based in order to expand the available pool for open roles, potentially reducing unconscious bias through objective assessment of relevant skills. And to achieve this, employers could consider developing a common skills framework that defines what these digital skills are to help guide employers in assessing the level of digital competence of potential employees, thus helping to match talent with business skill demand.

Carolina Feijao

Yes, and besides hiring-related strategies, companies can contribute to the development of digital skills by actively driving digital inclusive initiatives and programs. Then redistributing labor and skills across businesses can also create opportunities to address skills mismatches and reskilling initiatives can play an important role in using existing resources within a organization by investing in employee skill building. This, in turn, can help build resilient workforces as well as improve employee performance and satisfaction. So linked to this, investing in and adopting a lifelong approach to learning is an important step to ensure digital skills remain up to date.

We also found that developing cross-cutting partnerships, for example across academia, industry and the public sector, can also help tackle the skills gap. Such a holistic approach can increase the success of the digital skills initiative by bringing in a multi-stakeholder perspective and broaden opportunities for reskilling and upskilling in a more economical way as a result of pooled resources and ultimately reaching the people in the workforces who are most at risk of falling behind.

Catherine McShane

So it sounds like there are some things that organizations can do by working together that can make a difference here to address this issue. But one final question. So as researchers, what sort of impact do you hope to see from the study?

Salil Gunashekar

Thanks, Cat. That's a really important question. So with this study, we hope to bring to the forefront some of the really important factors driving the digital skills gap, as well as potential solutions to address this issue. Now, closing the digital skills gap could ensure that workers have the skills they need to future proof their careers and meet employers skills expectations, but also importantly, potentially prevent the further growth of social and digital inequalities between those who have digital skills versus those who don't and who have been traditionally left behind.

So we believe that this research will be of interest to policymakers, those in industry and academia, but also more broadly to anyone, including the public interested in technology and wider skills-related issues. We envision continuing our work in this area by focusing on approaches to try and measure the digital skills gap across different countries and different sectors as a means to track progress in this field. But I guess more generally across our wider emerging technology policy portfolio at RAND Europe, we are looking more closely at the various challenges related to digital skills and the digital skills gap.

Cat McShane

Thanks, everybody. That's all we've got time for today. So many thanks Salil and Carolina for joining us. Thank you the audience for listening to Expert Insights with RAND Europe. The study that we discussed today was the Global Digital Skills Gap: Current Trends and Future Directions. If you're interested in finding out more about this research, please visit our website at randeurope.org. RAND Europe is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that helps to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.

Learn More

  • Mature students learning computer skills, photo by Monkey Business Images/Adobe Stock

    Report

    The Global Digital Skills Gap: Current Trends and Future Directions

    Dec 15, 2021

    Carolina Feijao, Isabel Flanagan, et al.

    Researchers sought to better understand at a macro level whether and why the digital skills gap is widening, its implications for digital and social inequalities, and what various stakeholders are doing in response.

  • graphic designer, designer, businesswoman, office, casual clothing, sitting, holding, working, smiling, happy, cheerful, joy, attentive, focused, concentration, artist, graphic tablet, design, designing, digitizer, graphic, editing, stylus, desktop pc, keyboard, mouse, laptop, photograph, photo, pictures, color swatch, sticky notes, digital camera, desk lamp, desk, chair, professional, expertise, skill, digital, modern, profession, millennial, curly hair, smart

    Project

    Examining the digital skills gap

    Dec 15, 2021

    Researchers assessed the evidence associated with the digital skills gap. The study analysed the key trends driving the gap at a global level and articulated some practical steps to address this challenge and potentially ‘close’ the gap.

  • euro in lightbulb

    Project

    Science, Technology and Innovation Research at RAND Europe

    Sep 2, 2020

    Our researchers help clients understand how to maximize the gains that science, technology and innovation can bring to society and the economy, and how unintended consequences can be mitigated through effective regulation and stakeholder engagement.

  • empty desk

    Project

    Education Research at RAND Europe

    Sep 2, 2020

    Researchers at RAND Europe explore how different policies can support learning at every stage of life, helping organizations and policymakers develop more effective education practices that are inclusive and equitable for all.