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Technology too hot to handle?

15 January 2018

Productivity growth in the UK will continue to stall without Government and industry action to tackle a digital skills deficit in small businesses, according to new research from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

The digital skills gap is part of a wider skills challenge hitting small firms. The research finds a third (30%) of small businesses in England, which have tried to recruit in the year since the Brexit vote, have struggled to find workers to fill roles because of acute skills shortages. Skilled trade jobs, including electricians, IT engineers and construction workers are most affected as the labour market remains tightly squeezed.

“Productivity is being hampered by nagging skills shortages which are making recruitment a nightmare for small firms," Mike Cherry, FSB National Chairman. "As the UK moves towards Brexit, a technical skills black hole threatens the economy. Small firms also tell us that technical skills are crucial to the future growth of their businesses. The clock is ticking to tackle the ever-widening skills gap.”

FSB has found that over a quarter (26%) of business owners in England lack confidence in their basic digital skills and more than a fifth (22%) believe a lack of basic digital skills among their staff is holding them back from increasing their digital and online presence. It warns that small firms will be left behind unless the National Retraining Scheme, announced in the Budget to boost digital capability, is designed with them in mind.

Despite clear evidence that better digital capability spurs growth, a quarter (25%) of small firms do not consider digital skills to be important to the growth of their business. That is why FSB believes demonstrating the benefits of digital to these firms will be critical.

“If we can harness the digital potential of small firms, we stand a real chance of creating more world-beating businesses and boosting growth. We know that embracing digital technology can help businesses in every sector to be more productive," says Cherry. "Firms risk being left behind unless they have the skills to take advantage of technology to remain competitive and responsive to their customers. We need to highlight the benefits of going digital and then make sure that small businesses and their staff can access basic digital skills training that meets their needs through initiatives like the National Retraining Scheme.”
In the US, according to the White House, 51% of STEM jobs in 2018 - STEM is an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering and math -  will be in computer science-related fields. STEM-related programmes have become a presidential priority because too few college students are pursuing degrees in these fields.

However, the number of tech employees has not increased along with the number of jobs available. Why? The answer is simple: lack of relevant education. The White House maintains that just one quarter of K-12 schools offer high-quality computer science with programming and coding. In addition, in 2016, the PEW Research Center reported that only 17% of adults believed they were “digitally ready.”

Coding has always been regarded as a mysterious field, something Derek Lo, co-founder of the new application “Py”, wants to change. Launched in 2016, the application offers interactive courses on everything from Python to iOS development. The “unique value proposition,” as Lo puts it, has been a revolutionary success. The fun-oriented application has so far resulted in over 100,000 downloads on both iTunes and Google Play.

Py focuses on high-level concepts, recognising that coding will become less about memorising basic syntax and more about high-level understanding of what’s really going on. Programming languages have morphed from low-level (shifting bits and allocating memory) to high-level (abstract data structures and functional programming), from obtuse (assembly, machine code) to human friendly (Python, Swift).

- ‘Learning the Ropes – Skills and training in small businesses,’ 11 December 2017

- On behalf of FSB, independent research company Verve surveyed 1,023 small businesses in England about skills and training between 14 August and 1 September 2017.

- Businesses were asked about recruitment in the “last year”, meaning this 12 month period refers to August 2016-August 2017

 
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