How Can We Plug Kent’s SME Digital Skills Gap?

By Dr Catherine Robinson

A report published this week from Learning & Work Institute highlighted that there is a worrying, and growing, UK’s digital skills gap. Their findings were summarised in a BBC news article which highlights the evidence of a skills shortfall in digital technologies

The findings demonstrate a systemic failure to promote and deliver IT skills within education, from schools and universities to in-business training. The conditions brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic have further exacerbated these needs, causing a step-change in the use of digital in our private and professional lives.

The relationship between technology and skills is complex. With each wave of technology, concerns are raised about the existence of skills-biased technological change, resulting in increased skills obsolescence and ultimately high levels of unemployment until the skills become embedded at all levels of the curriculum  

Pilot study

At Kent Business School, myself, Dr Catherine Robinson and Christian Siegel (School of Economics) have recently undertaken a pilot survey of SMEs in Kent to understand their use of Big Data, AI and robotic technologies specifically.  

The aim of this project, supported by the Office for National Statistics, is to explore the associated skill complementarities with technology and the shortages or gaps experienced by Kent’s SMEs. We are also looking at the extent to which they are investing in training.

In our pilot study finalised recently, we discovered that over 70 per cent of SMEs in the survey sample made technological improvements and upgrades in the past three years. Around 50 per cent have adopted new production or distribution methods.  Artificial Intelligence is being used directly in under 10 per cent of those surveyed but with a further 22 per cent looking to use it in the future.  Out of these, the majority reported to support employees through complementary training and education, and a third of all surveyed SMEs reported difficulty in attracting the right people to their jobs. All of our statistics point to a skills gap faced by Kent’s SMEs.

Interestingly, the surveyed SMEs on average expect wages to increase when new technologies are introduced and the majority of surveyed SMEs were unsure of how AI or Robotics would impact their future management and business activities, which perhaps indicates both an uncertainty and lack of confidence in investing and engaging with new technologies.   

‘Business focused digital portfolio’

Higher education providers are beginning to address the skills gap, with a growth in business focused digital portfolio of programmes such as Digital Marketing Analytics and Financial Technology.  

While higher education will certainly help improve things, more basic digital literacy seems to be the most necessary for the bulk of businesses to reap the rewards from this latest technological wave. 

Improved employer-education links could facilitate this and indeed the dialogue between Universities and SMEs is likely to improve with the Help to Grow (Digital and Management) programmes as well as through the Higher and Degree Apprenticeships.  

Both of these schemes require SMEs to directly invest in skills of their staff in this way and prepare them for  tomorrow’s world.

Dr Catherine Robinson is Deputy Dean of KBS and the director of Productivity and Workplace Performance at KBS. She is an applied economist working with microdata on issues relating to productivity and performance.

Read more about Dr Robinson’s research on digital skills shortages.

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