Bridging the Digital Skills Gap to Unlock Social Value

Author: Li Xiangyu (Spacelee), VP of Public Affairs and Communications, Huawei Middle East

The Middle East is moving rapidly towards a fully-connected, intelligent future in which more people, homes, and organizations are linked than ever before. This is bringing enormous value to economies and societies. Nearly 80% of Middle East private businesses have already acknowledged that digitalization will impact the long-term viability of their business, according to a recent PwC study .

At the same time, however, digital technologies are changing traditional employment structures, and the labor market has become increasingly polarized. A lack of digital skills has become a development bottleneck for the digital economy. At least 133 million new roles generated as a result of the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms may emerge globally by 2022, according to the World Economic Forum. But who will fill these responsibilities?

Many academic institutions are already being challenged to develop a curriculum that prepares young people for these jobs of tomorrow. In one 2018 McKinsey study, it was predicted that 45% of the existing work in the Middle East at that time would potentially be automated by 2030. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has also predicted that more than half of the global workforce will need to be taught new skills to adapt to these significant changes to the way of work.

In addressing this gap, we must start from the beginning by defining “digital skills” today. The traditional definition is actually quite broad. The theoretical models for digital skills are even more complex.

For a more intuitive understanding, we simply define digital skills as the skills that enable communication and collaboration between humans and machines.

Within this definition, there are three core competencies. The first is having the ability to use digital tools, such as knowing how to download files online, writing PowerPoint presentations, and so on. The second aspect is having the professional skills needed to work in the digital sector, such as running data analytics using the Python programming language. Thirdly, we must appreciate the soft skills involved in the digital world, such as project and knowledge management.

In the next decade, people without this digital literacy will be unable to use new tools or compete in future workplaces. They will become functionally illiterate in the digital era. Businesses and countries lacking the culture of developing digital skills will find it extremely difficult to ride the coming waves of digital transformation and risk being left behind.

It begs the question: is enough being done to close the digital skills gap? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Not yet. Even at a large global corporation like Huawei, there is a shortage of digital skills.

Looking at what the future holds, we see three clear priorities in helping to bridge the digital divide in 2020. Enabling equal access to connectivity in every corner of the world is the first step. The second step is to enable universal access to ICT skills development platforms. This lack of access has over time become a bottleneck for digital uptake. To truly benefit from the digital era, businesses and countries must also invest in digital upskilling and mandate digital skills training for all.

In order to meet these priorities in the Middle East, we all need to place the improvement of digital skills high on our agenda and tackle the challenges facing governments, enterprises, and even technology firms themselves.