UKForCE Submission to Maggie Philbin’s Digital Task Force

The journalist and broadcaster Maggie Philbin was commissioned by Ed Miliband towards the end of 2013 to report on the Digital Skills needs of the UK. The report will be published shortly and made available to all political parties. In May, UKForCE made a submission in response to the task force’s call for evidence. Our full response is here.

For me, the most enlightening, but incidentally rather excruciating, element of preparing the submission was an analysis of the 361 Standard Occupation codes (SOCs) used by the government to categorize the occupations of the entire UK workforce (just under 30 million people in full and part-time work). The codes cover all jobs, including such diverse categories as Biochemists, Social Service managers, Shelf Packers and Financial Analysts. For each SOC the government has an estimate of the number of people undertaking that occupation. The question we asked ourselves was ‘What digital skills will be required for people undertaking each of these occupations as the economy becomes increasingly digital and digitally enabled over the next few years?’

This is not an easy question to answer and in the time available all we could do was make some judgements based upon our own knowledge. In the coming months we hope to undertake more rigorous analysis, possibly including surveying employers. Personally I’d be surprised if the bottom line results from the more rigorous analysis will differ hugely from this initial breakdown, so we took the view that it was worth publishing our conclusions so far.

The process we followed was:

  • Define 4 broad bands of digital skills
  • For each SOC take a view on what fraction of people undertaking that occupation will require a set of digital skills falling into each of the 4 bands
  • Convert this fraction into an absolute number of people in each SOC requiring skills in each band (straightforward application of the fraction to the total number of people  within the SOC published by the government)
  • Aggregate the people falling into each band across the entire set of SOCs.

The four broad bands of digital skills we chose were as follows:

Digital Muggle: No digital skills required – digital technology may as well be magic.

Digital Citizen: the same work skills as are required to be a full digital citizen. This is the ability to use digital technology purposefully and confidently to communicate, find information and purchase goods/services.

Digital Worker: substantially more digital skills than those required for full digital citizenship but less than those of a Digital Maker. This includes, at the higher end, the ability to evaluate, configure, and use complex digital systems.  Elementary programming skills such as scripting are often required for these tasks.

Digital Maker: skills to actually build digital technology (typically software development). The Digital Maker category is interpreted quite broadly to include, at the low end, for example, workers who regularly create complex Excel macros or data files for controlling 3D printers.

The above bands are by necessity incredibly broad and fuzzy, but hopefully align well with the categorization that the task force itself is using.

The segregation of the entire workforce into the 4 bands of required digital skills arising from this analysis is as follows:

Digital Muggle:       2.2M
Digital Citizen:        10.8M
Digital Worker:       13.6M
Digital Maker:        2.9M

The clear conclusions from these numbers are that:

a)  Almost everyone in the workforce will soon need the skills of digital citizenship to do their job, notwithstanding their need for those skills in order to engage more broadly with society and government.

b)  Well over half the workforce (Digital Workers + Digital Makers) need digital skills significantly beyond those required for digital citizenship.

The specific skills needed by Digital Workers and Digital Makers are extremely diverse depending on sector, SOC and business practices of particular employers. These skills range from financial modelling, content creation and social media analysis through to chip design and big data science. The sheer diversity of these vocational needs makes it impractical and unhelpful to teach specific vocational digital skills at school. Our workforce requires a foundational understanding of digital technology that can underpin and facilitate the acquisition of many different vocational digital skills, in a world where digital evolution will be extraordinarily fast. Moreover, this evolution will be periodically punctuated by changes that are truly revolutionary rather than evolutionary. It should be remembered that the internet, mobile phones and identification of the human genome have all happened during the working life of very many people still in employment today.

For the more expert Digital Makers, the necessary foundational skills will be acquired at A Level and through Computer Science degrees. However, for the majority of Digital Workers and Digital Makers, the high quality teaching of a rigorous Computing curriculum, such as the one being introduced in England in September 2014, is the appropriate way to lay the groundwork for these future careers.

A good computing education at school is in many ways akin to the 3 Rs. It is a deep skill which will be necessary to fully exploit the new digital environment as it continues to change at a remarkable speed.

Over the coming years we expect a trend toward greater ‘digital self-sufficiency’ in many jobs within an organization. Historically organisations used to have typing pools which have been made largely obsolete by other workers preferring the often more timely approach of creating and formatting their own documents. Similarly, many workers now use technology to manage their own diaries, rather than relying on a PA or secretary.  Self-sufficiency is facilitated by technology and results in more nimble organisations. Start-up companies, particularly in the tech sector now commonly have an entire workforce that is completely digitally self-sufficient. That is, everyone has the digital skills necessary to select, install, use and even modify/enhance all the digital tools they require. There is no need for recourse to a central IT function. This trend favours, sometimes to the exclusion of other candidates, those with Digital Maker skills. In other words, across the entire workforce we expect to see a significant increase in the 2.9M Digital Makers. We believe that as many as 25% of the Digital Worker community would already benefit from some Digital Maker skills, improving the overall agility and effectiveness of their employer. This corresponds to more than doubling the 2.9M estimate of the number of people requiring Digital Maker skills to over 6M if this trend toward digital self-sufficiency continues.

The full UKForCE submission contains the above analysis and also provides our input on a number of other important questions asked by the task force in their call for evidence.

Chris Mairs CBE is a Fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and Chair of UKForCE

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Chris Mairs

About Chris Mairs

Chris is Chief Scientist at Metaswitch Networks and is also Chair of Code Club, a Not For Profit organization providing after school clubs in over 2,000 UK primary schools. He is a fellow of The Royal Academy of Engineering and in the 2014 New Year’s Honours List was awarded a CBE for services to engineering. Being blind himself, he delivered the 2006 IET/BCS Turing Memorial lecture entitled “Lifestyle Access for the Disabled – adding positive drift to the random walk with technology”. Chris’s 35 year career has been in communications software, working with many of the largest global players in the computer and telecommunications industries, including IBM, Microsoft, AT&T and BT. He has a first class degree in Computer Science from Cambridge University and was one of the founders of Metaswitch, where he spent many years as CTO. He now spends much of his time mentoring UK start-ups around Tech City, where he is also an active early stage investor.