Scotland's Digital Future: supporting the transition to a world-leading digital economy

Assesses the role that Scotland's public sector is playing in stimulating the digital economy and proposes actions that could be taken.

5 The Skills Agenda

Sustaining economic success within an increasingly competitive digital economy requires a workforce with the skills and confidence to harness the potential of digital technologies to drive growth, stimulate innovation and improve productivity. This requires Scotland to ensure that it can both call upon the number and range of IT and Telecoms professionals required to support the digital economy and enjoy levels of digital literacy across the whole of our workforce that enable us to recognise, deploy and use digital technologies to transform business operations and service delivery.

Current position

The Scottish ICT sector is healthy and vibrant. It employs 73,000 people, primarily in high-value jobs and makes a direct contribution of £3 billion per annum to the Scottish economy. Between now and 2020, the number of IT professionals within the Scottish IT industry is forecast to grow 1.91% per annum to 84,000. This is nearly four times faster than the Scottish average. Software professionals are in particular demand, with growth in employment predicted to be 2.4% per annum.

In all, the IT and Telecoms sectors require 9,600 new entrants p.a. over the next 3 years. However, the pipeline of talent that supplies this demand is coming under increasing pressure and continues to be marked by a significant gender imbalance. There has been a general decline in the number of students taking computing courses in schools with a 27% decline in Standard Grade, a 17% fall in intermediate 1 and a 1% fall in Higher uptake from 2007-2011 [11] . The number of enrolments onto IT and Telecoms related courses in Further Education colleges has fallen to 51,840, a drop of 31% from 2005/06. Moreover, whilst there has been an encouraging 19% increase over the past 2 years in the number of people applying to IT related courses in Higher Education in Scotland, this is set against a backdrop in which numbers declined by 29% between 2002-10, at a time when applications to Higher Education more generally were increasingly significantly [12] .

SMEs, in particular, face challenges in attracting and retaining talent as people with experience in emerging professional disciplines are targeted by larger multi-national organisations.

Skills shortages within specialist industries are matched by a lack of digital literacy amongst the Scottish workforce and a lack of awareness about the opportunities that new technology can provide. Research shows that a high proportion of decision-makers in SMEs are often unfamiliar with the demands of ICT projects, do not fully appreciate the benefits, risks and costs of an ICT investment and often lack the skills to define the business requirements properly. Levels of digital literacy vary widely even among those who use the internet regularly. An Ipsos Mori poll for the BBC published in July 2012 highlights an appetite for up-skilling amongst a range of on line groups; females, older age groups, disadvantaged groups and those with basic skills [13] .


Our ambition is that Scotland continues to produce and attract the skills necessary to promote Scotland's digital economy. In particular that:

  • Scotland has the skills required to develop and exploit its strengths in digital health and care; big data (data analytics, cyber-security, data industrialisation); smart mobility; sensors and sensor systems; smart environment.
  • There is extensive collaboration across Higher and Further Education and an extension of the research and innovation capability into Continuing Professional Development ( CPD) and advanced teaching, at a scale and pace commensurate with the economic opportunity.
  • Our growth sectors have access to the ICT professional skills they require to embrace digital technologies as a key driver of business transformation, business efficiency and growth. Industry Leadership Groups will be fully engaged to ensure comprehensive and sustained communication on the Digital Skills Challenge.
  • Our SME base understands the potentially transformational impacts of enabling technologies and can access appropriately skilled ICT professionals that can help them across all aspects of their business.

Our ambition is for our SME base to have the digital leadership skills to recognise the potential that digital technologies can offer in promoting productivity benefits, innovation and growth. Our ambition is also for Scotland's workforce to have relevant digital literacy skills as part of their overall employee competence.


A Skills Investment Plan will be completed in early May 2013 in line with the 5-stage process described in Figure 7. This concludes with the development of a comprehensive action plan in conjunction with partners and stakeholders for consideration by the Joint Skills Committee. This will then be publicised to key stakeholder groups through a series of presentations and workshops. The completed plan will provide industry insight for suppliers of education and training and facilitate an improved alignment of the publically funded skills supply system to the needs of industry.

Figure 7: Skills Investment Plan Development Process

Figure 7: Skills Investment Plan Development Process

In a dynamic technology driven environment, maintaining the relevance of both the educational curriculum and methods of delivery is a significant challenge. Curriculum for Excellence provides a framework for young people to develop their ICT skills through learning across the curriculum as a whole and through specialist study in computing science. There is a clear opportunity for industry to support the delivery of the curriculum, and to enable access to resources and materials which are up to date and relevant. They can also provide access to the work environment through project development and work placements, for both students and teaching staff.

Resolving skills shortages will require action at both tactical and strategic levels. A tactical response to increase the existing pool of suitably trained workers in the short term backed up by a longer term strategic approach to ensure that the future workforce at all levels have the skills and understanding to adapt flexibly to new applications of digital technologies.

There are a range of options for bridging the existing skills gap. At the higher end conversion courses\digital boot camps for recent graduates which augment their digital skills and increase employability for those currently underemployed. This could be particularly relevant across the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths ( STEM) subjects, business, marketing and broader creative industries. The introduction of Professional and Technical Modern Apprenticeships would provide a clearer route for advancement for those already in the workplace with lower level entry qualifications.

Innovative partnership activity between Highlands & Islands Enterprise Business Gateway and e-skills Scotland is already proving popular with the SME business community and offers the potential for scalability and adaptation to incorporate additional optional learning components.

Grants and subsidies for businesses and individuals who want to increase skills levels already exist through a range of national and local funding mechanisms, including Individual Learning Accounts and Flexible Training Opportunities. Improved communication, bundling and marketing of services will be required to broadcast opportunities and keep it simple for business.

Key Recommendations

5.1 We should publish and implement a Skills Investment Plan in conjunction with key industry partners and stakeholders. This will focus on meeting industry demand through increased collaboration between industry and academia. Maximising the impact of existing investment through greater alignment of the skills system and focusing on the skills required to maintain global competitiveness in the identified growth areas.

5.2 Education Scotland should work with Skills Development Scotland ( SDS) to test current awareness of the career opportunities within the digital economy and make recommendations to ensure that they are fully understood and acted upon by our current and future workforce. We should continually enhance industry awareness, career management skills and information sources such as My World of Work.

5.3 We should work through the Industry Leadership Groups and newly formed Regional Advisory Boards to raise awareness and promote sectoral initiatives to encourage adoption and implementation of digital technologies as a key driver of business transformation, business efficiency and growth.

5.4 Enhanced vocational training opportunities should be explored to support gaps in supply, including:

  • Increased promotion of the existing Modern Apprenticeship Frameworks.
  • Development of Professional/ Technical Modern Apprenticeships Frameworks.
  • Enhanced CPD programmes.
  • Conversion courses.
  • Increased number of undergraduate places at universities.

5.5 Education Scotland, working in collaboration with SDS and industry, should examine how digital literacy skills are promoted in our primary and secondary school and benchmark international practice, making recommendations on improvements that should be made.

5.6 We should introduce a Digital Excellence Leadership Programme targeted at Managing Directors and senior management within our SME base.

5.7 We should build on the positive experiences of the Business IT Guide pilot within the Highlands and Islands and enhance it with an associated skills development programme.

5.8 Through the Digital Participation Charter and the Scottish Trade Union Learning Network we should work with industry to promote digital literacy skills across Scotland's workforce - introducing volunteer mentoring programmes to upskill and support people and businesses to get online.


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