Male and female work colleagues looking at computer screen, man pointing

The public sector needs digital skills now

I attended the Public Sector Executive PSE365 Festival for Learning and Development to learn more about the need for digital skills in the public sector and how the shortfall is to be addressed.   What I heard was worrying.

I can summarise both statements and associated discussion as follows:

  • We have a big need for basic and advanced digital skills.
  • Our route to developing the skills we need involves training Apprentices.
  • The Apprentices will be recruited e.g. post-school, or will be existing members of staff.  They will be educated / trained through an Apprenticeship programme provider. 
  • The Government is making additional money available to fund the Apprenticeship training schemes.

Apprenticeship programmes are worth their weight in gold – and support for the Apprenticeship plan, as a route to bridging the digital skills gap, echoed throughout the Festival. 

There are, however, some obvious questions:

  • Public sector departments are big, complex operations.  Advanced digital skills are needed now – amongst the current workforce – how are they going to be attained?
  • Is this going to lead to a yawning skills divide – with all technical tasks going to junior members of staff because the more senior members of staff have been left behind?
  • Apprenticeship programmes can take a long time to bear fruit.  The digital world is moving fast.  Are their skills going to be fit for purpose?
  • If you have an Apprentice with advanced digital skills, are they going to want to work for the public sector anyway?

This path makes sense if you are short of time and money.  Staffing budgets may not have to be increased if Apprentices are recruited as part of the natural turnover of staff.

It troubled me, however, that, although the questions are evident, no-one wanted to ask them.  Perhaps, at the moment, it’s a relief to be able say ‘yes we are doing something about the digital skills gap’ – and that, given all that’s happened, there isn’t the time or capacity to look too closely at the detail in the plan.

But if we don’t ask these questions now, in a few years time we may still be where we are now.  Public Sector departments will still be short of the right skills.  And those that have them will simply mirror the generational digital skills gap that is already growing across industry. 

There is an opportunity to look now at how we upskill everyone.  If we don’t it will be an opportunity missed – which would be a pity. 

Paul Clarke

Director Ltd