The digital skills gap: the importance of public and private sector collaboration

Martin McFadyen, head of public sector at Virgin Media O2 Business discusses the digital skills gap and how the Connect More Programme is helping people gain the digital skills they need

Digital skills are no longer optional. From applying for jobs and making GP appointments, to finding the best online deals and enabling smarter working, digital skills are an essential part of everyday life.
    
And their impact on the economy must not be overlooked. Research from Virgin Media O2 and economic modelling from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (Cebr) has found that the digital skills gap is costing UK workers £5.69 billion, with the cost to the UK economy rising to £12.8 billion.
    
This is having a major impact on people’s lives and work. According to the Digital Poverty Alliance, 82 per cent of jobs currently require digital skills. Yet, 5.4 million Brits are unable to carry out simple digital tasks – such as using a computer to write a letter or sending an email – despite wanting to.
    
With the cost-of-living crisis impacting both people and businesses alike, this simply won’t do. We discovered that 40 per cent of people pay higher prices for bills as they can’t shop around online, while 1 in 3 say their lack of digital skills has held back their earning potential.
    
And this has a knock-on effect on organisations too, with a lack of digital skills amongst the workforce impacting day-to-day operations.

In fact, in our Tech and the Battle for Talent report, 36 per cent of UK workers reported that their organisation rarely (if ever) provides training on the use of digital technology, while 32 per cent regarded a lack of training opportunities as the second biggest reason behind the skills shortage in the workplace.
    
Without finding solutions to the digital skills gap, organisations in all sectors miss out on talent, whilst people miss out on the personal and professional opportunities that they need more than ever during these financially unstable times.

The path to progress
With the economy, digital skills and the workplace so closely linked, we need to address the skills gap and unlock progress and growth in all areas.
    
And to do this, the private and public sector must act together.
    
Both sectors have a stake in the improvement of digital skills. Local authorities have the inroads at community level – and are best positioned to access the people who need help the most. Yet, with costs rising, many find themselves putting digital skills initiatives on the backburner. Private organisations, on the other hand, have the resources and access to technology and connectivity to help to support with delivery.
    
I firmly believe that understanding the power of collaboration with the public sector is critical to tackling the UK’s digital skills crisis.

Introducing the Connect More Programme
People want to upskill. Our study shows that while 56 per cent of respondents have a desire to learn new digital skills, 13 per cent simply don’t know where to start.
    
Virgin Media O2 Business is committed to tackling the gap at its root. It’s why we’ve developed a brand-new approach: one that leverages our heritage in the digital skills space with the strong partnerships we have with public sector organisations all over the UK.
    
A fundamental pillar of the Connect More Programme is the importance of training – providing the digitally excluded with skills, confidence, and motivation to use digital technology and make the most of being online.
    
The recently launched programme gives our employees an opportunity to use five paid volunteering days per year to deliver digital skills training through local authority drop-in centres across the UK.
    
After a successful pilot with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA), we’re now looking to partner with our network of public sector customers across the UK to help deliver the Connect More Programme nationwide.
    
The pilot saw volunteers identify the best areas in the local community to engage with, such as the Wythenshawe Community Housing Group. And the results speak for themselves. Here is what Patricia Handley, Wythenshawe resident and pilot session participant, had to say: “I don’t feel like I’m in a foreign country anymore. I’ve now been on this app and that app, and I never knew what people were talking about. But now I do. I know people out there who are out of touch with computers and frightened to sit in front of them. I don’t think anybody should sit down and say, ‘I don’t need to know anything else’. I don’t think you’re ever too old to learn. Some days, we don’t talk to one another as much because we’re so busy on the computer. But on other days, it’s a real community. We get together and talk, laugh, joke. It is brilliant.”
    
LFFN and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority

The key component which underlies all of our work to tackle the digital divide has been our valuable collaboration with public sector partners.
    
The Connect More Programme started in collaboration with the GMCA. And it follows long-standing work with this local authority to enact change in Greater Manchester and the surrounding area.
    
In 2020, Virgin Media Business and the GMCA set out to deliver the UK’s largest Local Full Fibre Networks Programme (LFFN), a government-backed scheme which was designed to give businesses and communities greater connectivity.
    
Since then, the LFFN Programme has connected more than 1,600 public sites, including 150 children’s centres, 97 school sites and 70 libraries. And, through driving local employment, has also helped generate £19.7 million worth of economic benefits for the local community.
    
Moreover, through its social value work – digital skills training, consultancy in schools, and providing digital tech bundles and kits – the LFFN Programme was able to provide people of all ages with the resources and confidence to carry out basic digital tasks, by allowing them the space to ask questions, learn and grow their skillset.
    
The GMCA had the vision: a commitment to making Greater Manchester 100 per cent digitally enabled by breaking down the barriers of digital exclusion. But it was the collaboration between the local authority, schools, health centres, and private sector organisations like Virgin Media O2 Business, which helped us all to move this vision closer to reality.

Prioritising public sector partnerships
Modern life demands digital skills. But their all-encompassing nature means that those who are impacted the most by the cost of living or lack of resources, tend to struggle the most digitally.
    
We truly believe in the power of digital skills to level up the UK. But a team effort between the public and private sectors is integral to making this happen.
    
The success of the LFFN Programme would not have been possible without the collaborative efforts of the GMCA and Virgin Media O2 Business.
    
And now, we have taken those learnings to create the Connect More Programme, calling on our public sector customers across the UK to help connect us – and vital digital skills training – to those most in need.
    
Tackling the digital skills gap is about more than just providing technology. It is the combination of resources – access to tech, connectivity, digital skills knowledge, teaching programmes and volunteers, as well as public sector organisations such as schools, libraries, and housing associations – which truly allows public and private sector partnerships, rooted in digital transformation, to thrive.

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