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UK's growing skills gap could stall COVID recovery

The number of students taking IT subjects at GCSE level has fallen by 40%, according to the Learning and Work Institute

Students in an IT course

The UK's economic recovery from COVID is under threat from a growing digital skills gap caused by a sharp decline in the number of young people taking up IT courses. 

Since 2015, the number of students taking IT subjects at GCSE level has fallen by 40%, according to a report from the Learning and Work Institue, an independent research organisation. 

The decline has largely been credited to the government's attempt to replace the ICT GCSE with the more challenging computer science GCSE. However, the report suggests that while computer science entries more than doubled since 2015, it hasn't made up for the numbers dropping out of ICT - the number of entries dropped from 147,000 in 2015 to just 88,000 in 2020. 

The slump is in stark contrast to the increasing demand for digital skills, which has been accelerated by the pandemic. The research polled 1,004 HR decision-makers in the UK and around 60% said they believed reliance on advanced digital skills was going to increase over the next five years.

Additionally, the research also included input from 2,017 people aged 16-24 and 88% stated that digital skills would be essential for their careers. 

Despite this, participation in A-Level and further education IT courses have also declined, according to the report. For context, young people aged between 16 and 24 accounted for three of every five jobs that were lost over the last 12 months.   

The deficit between the demand for digital skills and the availability of skilled workers has been an issue for many years, but it is now at a point where it is holding UK businesses back, according to the report. An 'Employer Skills Survey' from the Department for Education found that businesses that faced a shortage of skilled staff were suffering from increased workloads for other employees (84%), difficulties in meeting customer service objectives (49%), increased operating costs (45%) and lost business to competitors (40%).

"Our research shows that demand for basic digital skills is already nearly universal, and demand for more advanced digital skills will continue to increase," said Stephen Evans, chief executive of the Learning and Work Institute  

"Helping young people develop the digital skills that employers need will be vital both to driving our economic competitiveness and to ensuring young people can succeed in the labour market of the future."

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