Commsworld

Tech skills for a post-pandemic world

01 July 2020 | Melanie Mingas

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Throughout the pandemic, questions have been asked about what the post-Covid world could, and should, look like.

This week, the UK became the latest country to learn how things might change as 14 weeks of blanket lockdowns started drawing to a close.

In his plans for the UK’s economic recovery, PM Boris Johnson has unveiled Project Speed, promising to “scythe through red tape and get things done.”

Speaking on Tuesday, Johnson said: “And with every home we make, every mile of full fibre broadband that we lay, with every flood-defending culvert that we dig, with every railway station, hospital or school that we build, we will of course be tackling the next wave of this crisis, by helping to create thousands of high-paid high-skilled jobs.”

In addition, there will be investments in “new broadband” in the “towns that feel left behind”.

But for many, a high-tech future with high-skilled jobs requires more than government pledges.

In Q4, the OECD reported that if the UK’s current tech skills gap were addressed in line with other similar countries, it could boost productivity by at least 5%. Looking to 2030 – by which time it is expected automation and AI will have transformed many jobs – seven million people (around 20% of the UK workforce) will be considered under-skilled for their job.

In the tech sector specifically, five million people are set to become “acutely under-skilled” to 2030, while it is expected that 60% of the digital workforce will face “some degree” of under-skilling.

In 2018, Deloitte reported that only 17% of executives in the UK think the country can “lead the way” in a digital economy.

“The digital infrastructure decisions that we are making now will impact all of us for years to come,” says John Trower, chairman of telecoms network provider and ISP Commsworld.

“Even before we got to the Covid-19 crisis it was becoming apparent that the early stages of the Fourth Industrial Revolution were beginning to kick in and that we have a structural problem that we weren’t really thinking out loud about,” he continues.

Coincidentally, new figures released today by BT show that, at least among consumers, attitudes towards digital skills and tools are starting to change. In fact, 53% of UK residents and citizens said they have used technology more often and in different aspects of their lives, during lockdown. Further, 35% said they discovered new skills they will keep using after lockdown, including virtual appointment bookings, mobile banking, and online GP services.

In April, BT launched a daily series of how-to-guides during prime-time TV, to teach such basic digital skills. In addition to individual viewers, BT reached more than 40,000 business owners and employees with digital skills training too, and by 2025, BT’s Work Ready campaign aims to assist more than 7,500 18 to 24 year olds, who currently are not in education, employment, or training, to acquire new skills, work experience, and ready them for employment or further education.

“People can ultimately be streamlined by technology or they can be displaced by technology and we have to decide what sort of society we want to have,” he adds.

An opportunity for change

Trower’s warning may seem alarmist – after all, this debate has simmered for years and only this week new researched found a dwindling appetite for businesses to even invest in 5G.

However, the World Economic Forum estimates that as many as 42% of core job skills in demand today will change “substantially” by 2022.

For Trower, the global pandemic laid bare the “lack of equitable growth” in UK tech, but combined with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution the current situation could provide the an opportunity to tackle inequality, digital inclusion, concentrations of economic and political power, privacy, and even fast-approaching environmental targets.

“The potential is clearly there. The Covid-19 crisis we are in at the moment has brought us to a fork in the road and we need to make some decisions about what we want the world to be like after this,” he says.

While the adoption of certain technologies will primarily be influenced by regulatory frameworks and market appetite, the private sector will have a role to play too – and some are already getting started through various initiatives.

Next week, TIM hosts its Smart Spaces Hackathon, bringing together software developers, digital designers and marketers, to design “new and intelligent spaces featuring innovative services”.

The aim is to design new solutions for the home, office and outdoors, using the latest functionalities offered by AI, robotics and IoT, driven by the TIM Digital Business Platform.

In collaboration with Google Cloud and Codemotion five winning teams will receive a prize of €5,000 each at the award ceremony on 23 July.

Google announced its own initiative on 1 July to support 10 million people and businesses in Europe, the Middle East and Africa to “find jobs, digitise and grow over the next 18 months”.

“There are many more stories of people using digital tools in ways big and small to help their families and communities pull through. The same tools will be vital in helping countries recover more quickly and more sustainably,” wrote Matt Brittin, president of Google in EMEA in a blog post.

Trower says: “In the technology and communications industry we have a responsibility. We have a responsibility  to shape public policy, we have a responsibility to speak out about what technology can do and not only the benefits of technology but the risks, such as the potential displacing of jobs and trust issues around large organisations.

“We have an increasing moral responsibility to help society think about what it wants to become.”