UK Heading for “Catastrophic” Digital Skills Shortage

There has been a substantial decline in students enrolling on IT courses in recent years, meaning the UK is facing a “catastrophic” digital skills shortage, impacting the cybersecurity sector.

This is according to a new report by the Learning & Work Institute, which showed that the number of students enrolling in ICT at GCSE level fell by 40% from 2015 to 2020. While this is partly as a result of the phasing out of ICT GCSE in favor of the computer science GCSE, the number of entries into the latter subject has not made up for the fall in pupils taking ICT.

The research also found there has been a significant reduction in participation in further education courses in ICT. Compared with the academic year 2017/18, there was a 18% decline in enrolment in these courses and a 28% fall in completions.

More encouragingly, there was a small rise in ICT as a proportion of all apprenticeships in the first quarter of 2020/21 (up from 4.9% in 2017/18 to 6.0% in 2020/21). However, they still remain rare, accounting for just one in 20 apprenticeship starts.

Additionally, there has been a steady increase in the number of people starting an undergraduate degree in computer science in the UK, rising by 17% between 2014/15 and 2018/19.

The figures are concerning given the growing demand for digital skills in the UK economy, including in cybersecurity. Over three-quarters (76%) of businesses said a lack of digital skills would affect the profitability of their business and 88% of young people stated that digital skills will be essential for their career.

Discussing the findings, Adam Philpott, EMEA president at McAfee, commented: “To tackle the skills gap, organizations need to encourage a ‘top-of-the-funnel’ intervention and investment from government organizations. We must also collaborate across the industry to create concrete measures focused on closing the gap.

“One example of this is bringing talent in further down the line, by up-skilling employees internally or running returnship programs for those looking for a career change. We must ensure, however, that we have more talent available in the first place. This is why we should encourage those interested in IT or cybersecurity as early as possible and provide a school pathway into the industry.”

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