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The UK is heading towards a “catastrophic” digital skills shortage “disaster”, a think tank has warned. The Learning & Work Institute says the number of young people taking IT subjects at GCSE has dropped 40% since 2015. Meanwhile, consulting giant Accenture says demand for AI, cloud and robotics skills is soaring. Experts say digital skills are vital to economic recovery following the pandemic.

The Learning & Work Institute’s research reveals that 70% of young people expect employers to invest in teaching them digital skills on the job, but only half of the employers surveyed in the study are able to provide that training.

Fewer than half of British employers believe young people are leaving full-time education with sufficient advanced digital skills, while 76% of firms think a lack of digital skills would hit their profitability.

Dr Neil Bentley-Gockmann is the chief executive of WorldSkills UK, which commissioned the report. The charity is focused on training young people in digital skills to help them enter the workforce and also advises college teachers on international industry best practice.

He says there are four main reasons why the digital skills shortage is steadily climbing across the country:

  • a lack of clearly-defined job roles in certain fields
  • a lack of understanding and guidance about potential career paths
  • a lack of relatable role models

“I think there’s a challenge with the teachers themselves not understanding the possible careers – there’s a big opportunity for employers to go into schools to explain the range of job opportunities and help join the dots between what young people study in school and what that could lead to as a career,” Dr Bentley-Gockmann told the BBC.

“It’s important for employers to do this to ensure the future talent pipeline.”

WorldSkills UK runs numerous digital skill competitions in a wide range of fields that are open to young people at college age and up. About 15,000 young people enter these competitions annually, which come with complimentary training to help them to improve their skills further.

Dr Bentley-Gockmann says he meets many young people who have no idea that their hobbies can be turned into “high-rewarding job opportunities”. For instance, coding might sound boring or daunting, but it could lead to a career in 3D video game design. And playing with robots in school could lead to a career in building robots to solve problems for large manufacturing firms.

Although tech job ad listings dropped 57% in 2020, Accenture reports that demand for robotics skills has jumped “dramatically” in several northern English cities since July – robotics jobs are up 115% in Liverpool, 253% in Leeds and an epic 450% in Newcastle.

“I’m not surprised, particularly, as in the West Midlands and the North, traditional manufacturers are now implementing more technology into their manufacturing processes to become more automated,” said Dr Bentley-Gockmann. “There’s been a digital acceleration in all sectors, creating new skills needs, so that could explain the jump.”

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