The pace of digital adoption and the use of new technologies increased exponentially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many industry specialists calling the disruption a ‘quantum leap’ at both organisational and industry level. Governments and companies across the world were forced to accelerate the adoption of emerging technologies to mitigate the detrimental socio-economic impacts of the pandemic. Many governments, including our own, have also recognised the role technology will play in supporting economic recovery and growth. Despite the growing significance of digital technologies in the day-to-day operation of businesses, there exists a skills gap ‘where workers simply don’t have the skills to meet the demands of a digitally powered economy’. Data collated through an Open University survey evidenced the extent of this skills gap with:
- 9 in 10 organisations in the UK lacking digital skills in areas including cybersecurity, cloud-based development and management and emerging technologies,
- 56% of businesses reporting that skills gaps and shortages are already having a negative impact on productivity,
- half expecting profitability to be negatively affected in the next five years.
To help address this skills gap in the West Midlands, the Combined Authority (WMCA) designed and implemented a Digital Skills Pilot project, with the dual aims of promoting and improving digital literacy and developing more technical and sector specific skills. The pilot was funded in conjunction with the Department for Education (DfE) to inform a wider National Retraining Scheme, to be rolled out in other Combined Authority areas. The piloted scheme allows individuals access to free or subsidised training to improve digital literacy and technical skills at level 3 and above. WMCA approached Winning Moves to evaluate the impact of the pilot in increasing the digital skills and employability of participants.
We designed a combination of stakeholder interviews (including with providers), observation of training sessions, student satisfaction surveys, and a review of provider performance. Our early-stage evaluation of Phase One provided WMCA with an evidence-based assessment of the processes that the three active providers used to deliver bootcamp training of between 4 and 16 weeks, and a qualitative assessment of the early impacts on training providers, learners and the wider economy.
The aims of the pilot were complex, seeking to increase digital literacy at level 3, to achieve the movement of 70% of unemployed participants into work, and to expand the training to groups not traditionally seen in digital technologies. Our design allowed us to give insight into how well the aims were met.
Training providers were asked to complete a monthly performance dashboard, which asked them to provide data on the numbers of learners enrolled and completed training, and enrolment data by characteristics of learners. They were also asked for destination data on learners, and for data on positive outcomes for learners in gaining employment or moving to a better paid role. We surveyed learners to get an insight into their experiences of the training and their progression. Interviews were carried out with training providers and employers who were involved in delivering the pilot programme, as well as staff from WMCA who were responsible for the delivery of the project.
Overall, we found the pilot was highly successful in meeting its aims. Our research showed the success of increasing learners from underrepresented groups and the enhanced employment prospects of the learners, and how the delivery design succeeded. The overarching finding from this research is that bootcamp delivery is an effective and viable approach for accelerating digital skills development and equipping individuals for employment. However, the success of bootcamps is built on establishing an employer-based approach. Employer-led projects and master classes looked beyond qualifications to develop training to deliver the skills employers needed.
The unemployed participants stated that their confidence with computers and digital platforms was significantly increased. They were able to develop skills in specialisms including cybersecurity, machine learning, and project management. The bootcamp delivery also focused on wider employability, supporting CV writing and interview preparation as well as improving verbal and written communication skills. Employed participants being supported to progress into higher paid roles were provide with flexible training options, designed to work around their existing commitments. The Digital Café provided one-to-one tutor support and more advanced IT equipment.
We found that the ‘bootcamp’ delivery model of between 4 and 16 weeks helped providers to engage with learners and to help prioritise the skills most important for employment. The time between starting a course and securing employment or interview was attractively short. This encouraged learners looking for work or those looking to change career into the digital and tech sector. For businesses looking to support existing employees to develop new skills or enhance existing skills, short-course, intensive, provision limited the disruption to their day-to-day activities. Employers were able to provide practical experience, where learners can contribute to business outcomes, while also being monitored throughout the course.
We found that the piloted scheme was attractive to both learners and employers, allowing for the employers needs to be met, and learner to achieve better employment in the established and growing digital and tech sector. The government identifies this sector for its role in job creation and efficiency and productivity improvements. They have committed to rolling out “bootcamps and a way to boost the UK’s digital skills in preparation for what we must surely hope will be a tech-led national revival”. Our evaluation of the Digital Skills pilot has great importance to the future of these improvements in digital skills training and shows the huge benefits of well-designed digital skills training to government, policy makers and other combined authorities and devolved institutions.