Over the past year, every business and industry has been faced with its own unique challenges in adapting to market conditions that were drastically altered by the shutdown of ‘normal’ life. In addition, we do not yet have a clear sense of how far-reaching this will be for our everyday lives, or how it will impact the global economy as a whole. Yet while Rome has burned – it’s now time to assess the damage and start to rebuild.

The rapid – and long overdue – digitisation of industry during 2020 was undertaken amid huge cutbacks for many businesses and don’t forget there were those who didn’t, or couldn’t digitise at all. For example, Primark, sat back to ‘wait it out’ at a predicted loss of sales of over £1bn. Others spent lockdown quietly innovating, ready to spring from the traps when the worst was over; we’re only just beginning to see how the OOH advertising industry and film industry (where cinema is now facing a power struggle against a streaming sector which has flourished in lockdown) have changed behind the COVID-19 curtain.

For most, however, the pivot to ecommerce was a big initial outlay in time and resources that they now have to ensure they keep ticking over. Yet the same way an annual MOT isn’t enough to keep a car on the road, so too these businesses now need the equivalent of regular full ‘servicing’ to keep their online products and services well-oiled and moving up the gears.

What are the implications?

This demand has created a new and systemic problem for our nascent global digital economy, and one the UK government and leading tech players are only now able to get to, now that ‘survival’ has been ticked off. The UK’s digital economy is already at the heart of the government’s ‘build back better’ plan for our post-pandemic recovery. And building a ‘tech-savvy nation’ is in DCMS’s Top Ten Tech priorities for the UK.

Yet the best-laid plans often go awry, and there’s a large fly in the ointment (other idioms are available). A tech-savvy nation isn’t going to happen by osmosis, and we currently simply don’t have the skilled workforce to build the technological foundations we need. And this isn’t mere anecdotal observation, smart people have punched the numbers. Firstly, a recent report from the Learning and Work Institute revealed that over a third of UK employers believe their workforce lacks the advanced digital skills that they need. And 76% of businesses are worried that a lack of digital skills would affect the profitability of their business. 

Even more recently, Tech UK has highlighted the huge discrepancy between the sizable demand for digital workers, and the scarce supply of skilled applicants for those roles, or (re)training opportunities to meet their needs. It says more than 17 million of the UK workforce don’t have even the essential digital skills for their jobs, and it’s backed by the likes of Microsoft, Google and Salesforce, all urging ministers to address the lack of digital skills, which they say is costing the UK economy billions of pounds. 

A drop in employment

So while the issue itself is getting much needed column inches to raise awareness, it isn’t necessarily filtering through to those who can help solve the problem – which is young people before they enter the workforce and those who may have lost employment during the pandemic and are in prime position to reskill. We’re already very much playing catch-up in helping ensure that the now very high bar consumers have from always-on digital services can stay on and keep getting better. And it isn’t just the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft, with their dreams of electric sheep, robot drone deliveries, and driverless cars who are being affected by the shortfall. 

The Tech UK report pointedly draws attention to the ‘hidden middle’ – those between the digital nomads and the digital elite, who are redefining our collective future through tech. In our own digitally niche world of Paid Search at GOA, we’re noticing it isn’t even just digital skills that are lacking, it’s a digital and analytical mindset. We help customers find businesses online on a daily basis – arguably a keystone of the digital economy where every purchase still typically involves a Google search, and page two of results is no man’s land. What we need from employees, and we aren’t alone in this, are abilities like the special data-driven curiosity to review datasets and being able to glean insights and strategise what’s next. The human brain still has the edge of AI, at least for the next three to five years. A robot can beat a human at chess, but it can’t yet replace a savvy CMO or marketing team about what’s best for your business.

Away from our micro-data level, we also need a far greater industry-wide ability to test – and hopefully learn – in a methodically, top-to-bottom way. Now is the time for businesses of all shapes and sizes to throw rocks at key areas of operations and see what breaks, what can be improved, or what can be jettisoned. 

We’re also noticing a growing demand for in-housing talent that previously would be sourced from a retained agency. It makes financial sense, given the economy is on-the-ropes. But it won’t be the efficiency the budget spreadsheet says it will be unless they’re a true expert – someone who can not only put out fires but can anticipate them. And people with that level of experience are thin on the ground, not least because lots of senior level staff have shifted roles from detail to hand-waving. Globalisation might be able to provide businesses with cheap skills that will drive growth and efficiency, but only up to a point.

It’s a problem that can’t be fixed by a single article, or even probably by the collective focus and drive of the leading players and government either. Instead it’s on all of us who have the luxury of now being able to focus on what’s next, to factor digital training into our plans to rebuild. Rome wasn’t rebuilt in a day, but from the ashes of destruction it came back even stronger than before, and with a new Golden Palace. We too have an opportunity to build better, but that work has to start now.