How to overhaul the adult education system

We must transform our approach to adult learning to give people the digital skills our country needs, says Julian David

Julian David

Digital skills: How to transform our adult education system

The UK has a huge opportunity to get more people into good, rewarding, well-paid jobs. The economy is digitising at a rapid rate and demand for people with the right digital skills is exploding in just about every sector of the economy. But how many people are aware of these opportunities or believe there is an accessible route to get them from where they are today to these new jobs? And what more can we do to support learners and businesses to navigate this "pivot into digital" that is happening right around the world?

The solution has to be in transforming our approach to adult learning so that the skills of our workforce can continue to keep up with the pace of digital innovation. But there is a long way to go to get this right.

Reports such as the one published by the government’s Social Mobility Commission in 2019, The Adult Skills Gap, go to the heart of the matter. Amongst its findings, it established that the poorest adults with the lowest qualifications are the least likely to access adult training – despite them being the group who would benefit most – and that half (49 per cent) of adults from the lowest socioeconomic group receive no training at all after leaving school, compared with 20 per cent from the highest socioeconomic group. However, the UK still lacks the infrastructure and resources needed to overcome this challenge on its own.

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As previous experience has shown, the longer we wait to fix the problem, the harder it gets. This is why techUK – the technology trade organisation that I lead – has teamed up with tech industry representatives from Google, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, BT, Salesforce and Cisco, as well as FDM Group and UKFast, to form the Fast Forward for Digital Jobs Taskforce and offer a blueprint for a major overhaul of the UK’s adult education system.

Adult education: Providing easy access to digital skills

The taskforce is calling for the government to work with tech firms to open up diverse pathways for everyone to access digital skills certifications with a proven track record on employability, giving individuals from all backgrounds access to the tools they need to thrive in a post-Covid economy, and meet the demand for closing this gap.  

Our recommendations to government in a new report published today support learners, employers and the country to invest in digital skills. These recommendations include showcasing the opportunity of digital skills and jobs for all; championing bite-sized flexible learning to allow for speedier retraining for those being made redundant as a result of the pandemic; and, crucially, helping learners meet the cost of investing in certified digital skills by extending the Lifetimes Skills Guarantee, announced by the prime minister last autumn, to cover high-demand industry certifications.

We do not stop there. We believe the government must also help small and medium-sized enterprises to invest in digital “reskilling” through a Digital Skills Tax Credit and enable more of them to benefit from the apprenticeship levy so that they can access the funding and use it to retrain their staff with digital skills. It should also embrace the opportunity to build a world-leading online digital skills platform to match talent, skills and jobs and unleash the potential of the UK workforce.

Coming to a solution is not without challenges but it is within our reach – and it would make a huge difference to the people who need it most. If the government joins this coalition of the willing, we have a chance to work together to create new diverse pathways and give millions a chance to move to resilient and fulfilling digital jobs, and contribute to rebuilding a post-pandemic society and economy stronger and better.

Julian David is chief executive of techUK

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