Digital skills gap could cost UK £141 billion in GDP growth

03 October 2018 6 min. read

If G20 countries fail to adapt to meet the needs of the new technological era, they could be in line to miss out on as much as $1.5 trillion in GDP growth over the next 10 years. A growing skills shortage means that much of the potential of digitalisation could go unrealised, with the UK facing forgoing more than £140 billion to that end.

At present, the UK is facing a major talent shortage. With the approach of Brexit threatening to stifle the flow of labour between Britain and the continent, the effects of an ageing population could see almost 3 million jobs left unfilled by 2030. This is a trend mirrored across the major economies of the world, which almost universally face the proposition of an ageing population, if not the problem of tightening borders.

Digital technologies, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation are often spoken of as a potential remedy for this, with the increased efficiency and accuracy of technological solutions compensating for the loss of a portion of the physical workforce. At the same time, however, many Human Resources (HR) departments still underestimate just what is required of them to make the most of technological progress, by way of re-training and up-skilling their incumbent workforce, as well as adapting their hiring processes to foster new, digitally savvy, talent.

If G20 countries are unable to adapt the supply of skills

Now, a new report from global consulting firm Accenture has suggested that should this failure to close the digital skills gap continue, the UK economy could forfeit as much as £141.5 billion of the GDP growth promised by investment in intelligent technologies over the next ten years. According to the study, in line with global figures, some 51% of workers’ time in the UK is subject to potential augmentation in the near future, while 37% of the work could be entirely automated.

While this impact is expected to vary between job roles and geographic markets, the majority of leading economies are anticipated to miss out on more than $100 billion in growth, each. At the highest end of this, failing to close the skills gap could cost China up to 1.7% of its average annual growth rate in the next 10 years, or more than $5 trillion. Economies with a stronger skills base could also still lose big, with as much as $975 billion in the United States and $264 billion in Germany being missed out on.

Accenture suggests that most of the skills needed for the future workplace are best acquired through practice and hands-on experience, meaning experiential learning techniques should be prioritised, as well as a focus on complex reasoning, creativity, and socio-emotional intelligence. For most roles, augmentation holds great promise. Business and government decisions will determine by how much and by when. In terms of the global market, Science and Engineering features the most possibilities for augmentation of human labour with technology, at 74%. This would require a concerted effort to prepare the workforce for augmented work, however, especially in the field of science, this could provide large amounts of growth to the global economy.

The predominant impact of intelligent technologies will be to augment work

According to Accenture’s analysis, in the US, Empathy and Support workers, such as nurses and psychiatrists, represent the largest single share of employment in the entire economy, but these roles are highly augmentable. 64% of their work time could be potentially augmented, yielding huge efficiency savings and freeing professionals up to improve other areas of service, with 14% augmentable within the next ten years. As this happens, we can expect an increase in demand for these roles, as much as 1.4 million workers. With the right skilling investments, this could offer a major boost to the economy – but if not, it represents a squandering of huge potential.

At the other end of the scale, manual labour is less likely to see large amounts of augmentation, and is largely in line for automation. This is largely where the fear that AI and automation will lead to widespread unemployment comes from. However, according to a mounting body of evidence, AI is likely to yield a moderate boost in jobs available. The problem is that, without intervention from governments, and co-operation between businesses and industries, this major realignment of labour could prove to be a major missed opportunity, as those moving out of manual labour will require substantial support in training for new, technologically augmented jobs. According to Accenture, there are three areas where governments and businesses can work to avoid missing out on large amounts of GDP growth.

What’s to be done

First, Accenture encourages the speeding up of experiential learning. Companies can apply new technologies including virtual reality and AI to help make the learning of staff immersive and engaging. This could include design thinking in the board room to simulation training tools for technical roles, as well as on-the-job training initiatives and apprenticeships.

At the same time, Accenture suggests a shift focusing on institutions to individuals. Incentivising each individual to develop a broader blend of skills, rather than only targeting the output of institutions in terms of graduates or certifications could yield improved results.

Finally, the researchers suggest empowering vulnerable learners. While older workers or those in traditionally more manual roles are in a difficult position when it comes to digital change, while having less access to training. Businesses should offer more guidance to follow appropriate training and career pathway. This can be done by providing modular learning to suit their life commitments, while providing new funding models, such as grants, to encourage personal lifelong learning plans.