‘Bad for them and bad for the UK’: How one MP summed up the digital skills gap

Failing to teach people basic digital skills would be “bad for them and bad for the UK”, according to a new parliamentary group that looks at how the country will be affected by powerful new technologies such as cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Louise Haigh MP, Shadow Minister for Digital Economy, told ministers, members of Parliament, companies and charities at an event in the House of Commons recently that “there is no place for digital exclusion in the UK”.

It is believed around 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills, while nearly six million have never used the internet. A report released last year by the Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed that the UK needs a further 745,000 workers with digital skills by 2017 and that the skills gap is costing the economy £63 billion a year in lost income.

From left: Anthony Painter, Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA; Louise Haigh MP; Alan Mak MP; Matt Hancock MP and Hugh Milward, UK Corporate Affairs Director at Microsoft

Matt Hancock MP, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, told a panel of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, sponsored by Microsoft, it was crucial that people were given the skills to use the latest technology and create things with it.

“There has been a sharp reduction in the number of people who can’t use the internet, from 15% to 10% over the past 10 years,” he said. “We need the best engineers here in the UK. As the jobs are becoming more digital, people need the skills to get those jobs. But technology moves quickly, and if the government tries to do it [run training courses] alone we will fall behind the curve. We need corporate support. Computer science is the degree course with the highest graduate unemployment, which is absurd; in computer science courses where an employer was involved, they had high employability, but those that didn’t had terrible outcomes.”

Earlier this year Microsoft launched a programme to teach digital skills to people across the UK to ensure the country remains one of the global leaders in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other next-generation technologies.

Hugh Milward, UK Corporate Affairs Director at Microsoft, looks on as Chancellor Philip Hammond launches the all-party parliamentary group

Hugh Milward, UK Corporate Affairs Director at Microsoft, joined Anthony Painter, Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA, group chairman Alan Mak MP and Haigh and Hancock on a panel to discuss how the economy can make the most of the so-called “fourth industrial revolution”, which relies on cloud computing, artificial intelligence and big data.

“The cloud is … allowing us to do incredible things … providing huge potential for organisations and societies alike,” Milward said. “In the next 10 years, we will see data-driven technologies reconfigure systems in many different sectors, from autonomous vehicles to personalised learning, predictive policing to precision medicine.

“We’re incredibly excited by what this future holds. But we also feel it is incumbent upon us all to recognise that the path forward will not always run smooth. As with previous revolutions, there are a number of challenges and disruptions that we will have to navigate together. We don’t have all the answers, but we do want to start the debate.”

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The fourth industrial revolution had already begun, Milward added, with large companies, organisations and governments moving data to the cloud, and artificial intelligence and machine learning being embedded into a range of services that people interact with on a daily basis.

Over the past decade, employment in the UK technology sector has grown 2.8 times faster than overall employment, according to a report by Tech City, which supports the digital economy. Meanwhile, nearly half of UK bosses said they have to embrace digital transformation or see their company fail within the next five years, research by Microsoft revealed last year.

Being Europe’s biggest digital economy had allowed the UK to start the fourth industrial revolution from a “strong base”, Milward said, while Haigh added that this country can “lead the world” in digital transformation. However, the panel agreed that more must be done to make technology affordable and accessible to everyone while also taking into consideration privacy and security concerns.

Matt Hancock MP gives his views on the fourth industrial revolution

“Previous transitions in technology have shifted things and they have led to a better quality of life,” Hancock said, “but helping people through that transition is incredibly important. Making sure people’s use of and understanding of how data can be harnessed for the common good and improve how we do things, while making sure they are comfortable with machine learning and artificial intelligence, is incredibly important. As a society, we need to hand down legislative rules, norms, behaviour and ethics so we can harness this opportunity while reassuring people and bringing them along with us.”

Key to making technology inclusive is ensuring everyone has access to fast and reliable internet access, with 5G connectivity promising to offer “enormous” benefits, Haigh said. Hancock agreed, stating that the “drive to deliver broadband ubiquitously and move on up the technology curve to full fibre and 5G is a critical part” of a digital economy.

Last year Microsoft released its Cloud for Global Good publication, which set out policy recommendations for governments about how they can help ensure new technology is delivered in a way that ensures it is trusted, responsible and inclusive.