Jack Keenan and Ebuka Ibeke: Closing the digital skills gap now essential

In Scotland and the UK, we face a challenge where the digital skills and knowledge requirements of industry have outpaced the development and training of related areas. The result of this is a digital skills gap which means many jobs remain unfilled as there simply aren’t enough candidates with the appropriate skillset to fill them. A report by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport in 2019 found that around a third of vacancies employers struggled to fill were linked to the lack of digital skills held by applicants.

Jack Keenan is a Senior Lecturer and Digital Development Lead in the School of Creative and Cultural Business. Dr Ebuka Ibeke is a Lecturer in Business Analytics in the School of Creative and Cultural Business.

In Scotland, the tech industry is widely reported as one of the fastest-growing industries contributing £4.9 billion to the Scottish economy and supporting nearly 100,000 jobs. The rapid growth of this area creates a significant range of new jobs each year, however, a number of these remain unfilled due to lack of skills. Furthermore, 76 per cent of employers in the tech space report challenges in recruiting people with the right experience. This challenge is not limited to the tech industry though – in 2019 around 82 per cent of advertised jobs were found to list digital skills in their requirements.

Addressing the difficulties that the digital skills gap poses has been a focus of Robert Gordon University (RGU) for a number of years. Across the university there has been a significant focus on contributing to bridging this gap and providing education, training and upskilling in critical areas. Addressing the skills required by industry, both in terms of specific technical skills that need to be taught and more broadly regarding the whole person skills, which impact curriculum design and delivery.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The School of Creative and Cultural Business has developed a number of new courses as a direct response to the digital skills gap. The first practice-based MSc Digital Marketing in Scotland, which was designed and delivered with significant input from industry, was launched in 2014. In 2019, the school launched the first BA (Hons) Digital Marketing in Scotland, and MSc Business Analytics which is part of the Data Lab Masters programme, with fully funded places available. In addition to this, the school is also launching funded short courses in Strategic Digital Marketing and Data Analytics for Business Decision-Making.

Throughout the development of these courses, extensive research was conducted into the needs of industry, reviewing literature, analysing thousands of job descriptions and interviewing professionals and employers in related areas in order to inform course design. Throughout this research, a number of key digital skills that companies struggled with were identified, and it was also noted that increasingly the digital skills gap is a data skills gap.

The role data plays in informing decision making and supporting business cannot be understated. Businesses and organisations operating across all industries and sectors are increasingly seeking to harness the power of data, however, data is meaningless if it is not harnessed to draw meaningful, actionable insight. The data businesses currently analyse is just a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of data that is generated. You could ask ‘why is data not massively harnessed?’ and the simple answer is again the shortage of talents.

In 2019, Censuswide conducted a survey to discern the issues facing businesses that prevent them adopting a data-driven culture. This survey cited a shortage of talent as the biggest problem. Many businesses have IT departments who build and manage data infrastructure for data collection and storage, but this alone does not address business challenges or help support decision making. A successful business strategy needs a good data strategy; a strategy with individuals skilled in collecting, cleaning, processing, modelling, and analysing data. But more importantly it requires individuals who can translate that data into insight, individuals who can act as an interface between the scientists who interrogate the data and the businesses who seek to benefit from them. The journey towards becoming a data driven organisation is not just a technical challenge but more a challenge around supporting cultural change within the organisation and broader issues such as understanding the ethical and governance challenges that a data-centric approach raises.

Data analysis is a key skill that should be present in every business setting. It enables businesses to understand the dynamics of their business, improve efficiency, discover new opportunities and target markets, and to manage risks effectively. In specific domains, such as marketing, data plays an essential role in understanding your audience, the effectiveness of strategy and informs creative. Data analysis, digital upskilling and an understanding of the benefits this affords business is now essential.

Our relationship with data, both in business and more broadly, is one of the most pressing issues of our age. The first step towards bridging some of these challenges and allowing businesses to harness the benefits of digital and data in a responsible and ethical manner, is to develop the technical skills in parallel to data literacies and a development of a critical understanding of the impacts of digital technology and the ethical questions this raises. These are the core pillars that are developed in many of RGU’s courses, bridging both the digital skills gap of today and addressing the need for the ethical, culturally aware, data practitioners of tomorrow.

Jack Keenan is a Senior Lecturer and Digital Development Lead in the School of Creative and Cultural Business; Dr Ebuka Ibeke is a Lecturer in Business Analytics in the School of Creative and Cultural Business