New demands on digital skills

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The Lloyds Bank consumer digital index 2020 was released on the 21st May. It’s an annual study that gives a revealing picture of people’s online behaviour in the UK. Amongst many insights this year’s report estimates 9 million people still struggle to use the internet, or their devices, by themselves, and that 17.1 million people in the workforce lack digital skills in the workplace.

The launch event, held against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic and using some additional survey information alongside the index to reflect this, highlighted how our digital skills have been called on, perhaps like never before - whether we’ve been making a sudden shift to working from home, video meetings and all, trying to access information on the support available from government for our personal situations, keeping in contact with friends and family we’d usually meet or visit and using services and shops we’d usually choose to do in person.

Many of us will have quickly needed to learn new skills, and been spurred on (or forced by circumstances) to do so. Some of us have probably been called on to suddenly give digital learning lessons to our own family and friends, and maybe found our other skills like patience and giving clear information tested too. Positively the research found 1.2 million more people have developed their foundation skills in the last twelve months, mostly before the situation we find ourselves in.

At the same time event speakers and delegates discussed how the pandemic is likely worsening the divide between those online and those not. Those not able to get online without support can’t easily turn to their usual help and may not have existing skills to build on – if you can’t use a device without help then everything becomes immediately harder. Reluctant users may have fears about safety and what companies do with their information. Those with old devices, or few devices amongst the household, are restricted. Those without devices at all or who utilised free wifi at their workplace, a library or elsewhere as their only way to go online won’t have access to these spaces at the moment.

These issues reflect the four main barriers brought out in the report: motivation, cost, skills and connectivity. Familiar challenges to union learning reps (ULRs) promoting the benefits to colleagues at work. ULRs supporting their colleagues to develop will likely have seen a upturn in motivation and interest from people wanting to learn new things, for work and outside, and be helping to meet that demand for skills. With tough times lying ahead workers preparing for change will only add to this need as we work to recover.

We go to our ULRs for learning support, knowing they won’t judge our lack of digital skills or confidence and that they can encourage us, secure help from employers, and signpost us to quality learning. But tackling challenges like getting and being able to take up learning opportunities, cost and connectivity needs wider action and investment if we want to see the advantages of online really become available to all. Another striking statistic from the report is that only 23% of the population have received digital skills training and support from their employer. How does that match up with the message that these skills are ever more essential for our work and careers? More ULRs, in more workplaces, with the right support, are an obvious part of the collective solution we need.

Visit unionlearn’s digital skills section for more information, resources and signposting to ways to learn and develop digital skills. And view or order a copy of our 2019 Closing the digital divide guide for more on the union and ULR role in supporting people’s digital development - from helping members to access their digital payslips to supporting those at risk of losing their jobs to get transferable digital skills.

And here's the Lloyds Bank’s UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 in full.

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Andy Moss

Andy Moss is a project officer at unionlearn.