The UK is facing a “digital skills crisis”, with as many as 12.6m adults lacking core digital knowledge.
So says a report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which predicts the UK will lack 745,000 digitally skilled workers by 2017. It states that “only urgent action from industry, schools and universities and from the Government can prevent this skills crisis from damaging our productivity and economic competitiveness.”
With this in mind, it’s no surprise that some employers are questioning whether students who recently celebrated their A-level or GCSE results are equipped with the skills needed to succeed in the modern workplace.
But are digital skills really that important to a small business? We asked business leaders across the UK for their opinions.
Online presence is critical
Every business owner needs to either learn digital skills themselves or employ a skilled workforce that already has them, argues Carly Ward, co-founder of The Entrepreneurial Education Group (TEEG).
“The problem we face is that the online world is growing too quickly and we can’t keep up. If you are not active on social media or have an online presence through a well-optimised website, as harsh as it sounds your business doesn’t really exist,” she says.
Having recently re-launched as TEEG Digital, created specifically to offer apprenticeships and training in digital skills to help address the skills gap, Ward is adamant that the shortage of qualified digital workers must be addressed.
“Every business regardless of its size is usually looking for more customers,” she explains. “Most of those customers use social media and are online somewhere so it’s the job of the business to find them, engage with them and get them to buy without directly selling to them. I would challenge any business which says it doesn’t need to be active online.”
Government support is needed
This opinion is shared by managing director of digital agency Dijitul, David Hartshorne, who has little doubt that digitally-skilled staff are essential to running a successful business.
“Any business, regardless of size, would benefit from having the skills of a knowledgeable person who understands how the web works,” he claims.
But Hartshorne is concerned about more than the just a current lack of digitally-trained staff. If the UK is to compete in the future, he believes businesses need more help and argues that “smaller businesses need more support from the government in regards to the financing of new staff.”
“Apprentices are the lifeblood of our industry and, as a small business, it can be hard to employ and train an apprentice due to resources. The majority of skills are actually delivered in the workplace, yet the training providers have been getting most of the money for their administration and delivery of the qualification,” he adds.
Is education failing to deliver the skills young people need?
Richard LeCount, managing director of Hertfordshire based-tech supplier USB Makers, believes that failing to embed a digital culture within a business will effectively put it behind its competition.
He explains: “It seems that the younger generation are digital natives by nature, and while the focus is around social – which is an enormous part of business with regards to marketing, sales and branding – the skills need to be honed and put into context within an educational environment to make a real difference in the business world.”
A people-first approach
However, not everybody feels that digital skills are vital to a small business. Some even see them as a potential drawback.
Claire Curzon is a director at marketing agency Brighter Directions, and she believes that people, rather than the skills they possess, make a business.
“We tend to match the person with the office structure, environment and team vibe before we look at things like job skills and experience within a particular niche,” she explained. “So, in essence, our recruitment take a people-first approach.”
Training is key for Curzon whose firm “takes the time to get to know new members of staff,” she reveals. “We introduce them to our operations, to the team and structures, while building on fundamental skills such as writing, communication, administration and IT. Then, when settled, we provide a robust training program that takes them through the commercial journey of their role.”
Digital skills can be taught
Max Robinson, owner of e-commerce specialist Ace Work Gear, agrees that digital knowledge shouldn’t be a deal-breaker when hiring for a small business.
“I feel that digital skills are extremely overvalued and that they’re very easy to learn,” he says, pointing out that there are many aspects of a business beyond technology.
“The fact that we’re an online business doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m only going to hire people with digital skills. We still function like most businesses and I need staff to handle all of the offline aspects of my business. I’d much rather have a sales manager who needs to learn about social media, than a digital marketer who needs to learn sales,” Robinson adds.
Business skills, business ethos, or business model?
Whilst digital skills will certainly prove an advantage for the coming generations of job seekers, the hiring criteria for small businesses is far from cut and dried.
When taking on new staff, employers are likely to consider qualities which are dictated as much by the business ethos, as by the business model.
Hiring policy, it seems, remains a balancing act where technical know-how is only as important as personality, passion and dedication.