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Lack of Digital Skills sees UK Lag Behind Other Digital Economies

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A failure to keep up with digital advancements and invest in digital skills could hamper the UK’s ability to compete economically on the world stage, according to new research from Barclays.

The Barclays Digital Development Index benchmarks 10 countries around the world on their readiness to compete in the digital economy. The study, which attributes an overarching ‘digital empowerment’ score to each nation, found that the UK came in just fourth place behind new and emerging ‘digital tiger’ economies Estonia, South Korea and Sweden. When it comes to individuals’ assessment of their own digital skills and confidence, the UK trails major economic rivals India, China and the USA.

The findings are based on a survey of almost 10,000 working adults combined with analysis of policy frameworks and support for the development of digital skills in each country. The research highlights a disconnect between policies to support digital engagement in the UK, which score well overall, and a lack of confidence in digital skills at an individual level among British workers.

Ashok Vaswani, CEO, Barclays UK, said:

“The UK can become the world’s pre-eminent powerhouse of tech innovation and compete globally across all sectors and industries, but only if we significantly develop our digital skills and expertise.

“As the UK considers its future outside the European Union, we have to remember that the race to become the most digitally savvy economy is global and not confined to Europe. It is a race that will define how successful and prosperous we are for decades to come.

“The UK’s current strengths are clear: our children are being taught digital skills at school, the government’s policy is coherent and the private and voluntary sectors coordinate well. But the UK’s competitors in this race are developing faster and significant investment in digital skills is the only way for us to win it.”

While the UK ranks in 4th place in terms of support for the development of digital skills, performing well in selected areas of digital skills policy and advanced learning skills, these strengths are offset by relatively low capability and confidence in digital skills on an individual level where the UK ranks in 6th place behind some of its biggest economic rivals China, India and the USA.

Lack of skills posing security threat

The research highlights that UK confidence is particularly low when it comes to protecting data and devices. Workers in the UK are less likely to keep their phones and laptops secure than those in Brazil, South Africa or China, posing a potential risk of data leaks in the coming years as cyber hackers find increasingly sophisticated ways to access data.

  • Only 13% of people in the UK use password-generating software to create hard-to-crack passwords, compared to 32% in China and 32% in India
  • Only 41% of people in the UK change important passwords regularly, compared to 59% in India
  • Only 38% of people in the UK never save or store payment information on online accounts, compared to 58% in South Africa

From consumers to creators

Perhaps the most concerning indicator is the fact that the UK ranks just seventh out of 10 for coding skills and content creation. This is a key indicator of the ability to be a ‘digital creator’ rather than just a ‘digital consumer’, posing questions about what impact this will have on the UK’s readiness to compete in the future digital economy.

  • Only 16% of people in the UK would be very comfortable building a website, compared to 39% in Brazil and 37% in India
  • Only 11% of people in the UK would be very comfortable creating a mobile app or game, compared to 22% in the USA, 27% in Brazil, or 33% in India
  • Only 12% of people in the UK feel very comfortable creating a software programme or game, compared to 23% in the USA or 33% in India

Role of workplace training

The two leading countries in the index are ahead of the UK in the ranking for digital policies. Both Estonia and South Korea are particularly strong on vocational and workplace digital skills, while South Korea leads the way on broadband access policy and digital skills in compulsory education.

With the UK coming in seventh out of 10 for vocational and workplace skills, the research highlights a clear need for more to be done in the workplace to help boost digital skills. Estonia and South Korea, the joint leaders on digital empowerment, are also joint leaders on vocational and workplace skills. Only 38% of UK workers interviewed for the study say that their employer offers training in digital skills; this figure is considerably higher in China, the US (48% in both) and India (67%).

Ashok Vaswani continued:

“In the previous century, most of us had to cope with just one big shift in technology in our career or lifetime, and we’ve been able to rely on our early education to get us through. But, now these changes are happening constantly though the evolution of the internet, smartphones, social media, and the advent of new technologies like blockchain, virtual reality, Artificial Intelligence and open data.

“This research shows Britons need to equip themselves with digital skills whether to future proof their career, or keep personal data and devices safe. Businesses also need to do much more to upskill each and every generation of their workforce; we need to create a new culture of lifelong learning. With the referendum sending a clear message that too many parts of the UK do not feel they are sharing in the promise of global prosperity, now is the time to take everyone forward together in the digital age.

“Our call to action is clear: in schools and workplaces across the country, we need to build digital skills and confidence that will turn digital consumers into digital creators.”