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The complete guide to digital skills

Learn how upskilling yourself in key in-demand digital skills can level-up your CV, and reboot your prospects in a competitive jobs market.

Digital Managers

Professional services firm Accenture has teamed up with FutureLearn to provide a suite of free digital skills courses. Covering topics such as web analytics, social media, and artificial intelligence, these courses are designed to equip learners with essential digital skills for the modern century workplace.

But what are digital skills, why are they so important, and how can you learn them? Read on to find out more.


What are basic digital skills?

Digital skills are broadly defined as those needed to “use digital devices, communication applications, and networks to access and manage information,” in UNESCO’s terms.

This covers a huge range and variety of skills, of course. There are different tiers of digital skills. At the bottom, we have what the UK Department for Education (DfE) calls “digital foundation skills”.

These are the basic digital skills that will be second nature to Millennials and Generation Z digital natives, though which may have to be learned by older generations.

A framework written up by the DfE alongside Accenture and other organisations outlines these basic digital skills under six areas. These are then subdivided into skills for life and additional skills for work.

These are:

  • Digital foundation skills – the fundamentals of being able to use digital technologies, such as using a browser, connecting to the internet, and keeping passwords secure.
  • Communicating – sending emails securely, using attachments, and participating on social media.
  • Handling information and content – using search engines, being aware that not all online content is reliable, accessing content across devices.
  • Transacting – setting up accounts to use or purchase goods/services online, using different secure payment methods, filling in online forms.
  • Problem-solving – finding solutions to problems using FAQs/tutorials/chat, presenting solutions through software, and improving productivity.
  • Being safe and legal online – understanding best practice in data storage/sharing, updating and keeping passwords secure, and taking precautions against viruses.

These are defined as the basic digital skills needed in a day-to-day professional or personal context. They will be enough for many working in traditional workplaces which have adopted digital systems to improve efficiency, security, and connectivity.

What are advanced digital skills?

On the other hand, those looking to work in the growing digital sector itself will need to possess more advanced skills pertaining to specific areas of digital business. These include, but are no means limited to, areas covered in the digital skills courses:  

The internet has completely changed the marketing game, bringing a level of precision and scale unknown in the pre-digital age. Specialised digital skills are required in order to navigate this new terrain, with expert practitioners often focusing on one specific discipline. These include things like pay-per-click advertising, search engine optimisation, email marketing, as well as the strategy to bring them together.

Social media digital skills are crucial to the digital marketing mix, but are worth pulling out as social media has come to play such a significant role in our day-to-day as well as professional lives. Social media management tools, performance measurement, new channel research, brand presence/voice, influencer marketing, and paid vs organic all play a part in connecting with prospective and current users.

Just as the actual experience of shopping in brick-and-mortar stores plays an essential role in driving sales, the experience of using a website or mobile app is key to leading users to do what the website or app owner wants them to do. Indeed, it is even more central, as users can only use a website in predetermined ways. Thus, we have the area of digital skills known as user experience, or UX. This is the art of making sure that apps, websites, and other digital channels are intuitive and enjoyable to use.

Part of what makes the digital age distinct from before is precision. We can clearly understand the behaviour patterns of those using digital platforms. For businesses, this also means being able to quantifiably track the successes and failures of their digital initiatives. The digital skillset involved in collating and making sense of this data is web analytics. Things like benchmarking, audience segmentation, and measurement all fall under the remit of web analytics.

Artificial intelligence may still have something of a science fiction ring to it, even compared with the aforementioned digital skills. Nonetheless, artificial intelligence is playing an increasing role in modern businesses. Rather than the sentient robots of cinematic lore, AI is about teaching machines to do jobs, predict, and make decisions based on detailed computation of past examples.

Think of the automation of tasks to improve efficiency, by no means limited only to manual work, with business process automation playing an increasing role in modern workplaces (not even medicine or law are exempt). Machine learning from big data in order to make better strategic decisions or to predict how people will act in a given context is also set to be key.

These represent only a handful of advanced digital skills. Other examples include data visualization, web and app development, CRM software, video production, and search engine marketing (SEM).

Why are digital skills important?

Digital skills are important because they underpin so much of how modern work is conducted. For many modern professions, digital skills are simply essential skills.

A 2017 study from the European Commission found that 93% of European workplaces use computers, with 94% utilising broadband internet. These are across all industries; even farmers, the report points out, require digital skills in the 21st century.

The requirement for digital skills is higher in professional careers, finds the report. 90% of professionals are required to possess at least basic digital skills, increasing to 98% of managers. In many workplaces, basic skills will not suffice: 50% of professionals and technicians, and 30% of managers are required to have specialist digital skills. This is particularly the case in larger organisations.

This is by no means limited to the UK and Europe. A US-study from Burning Glass for Capital One found that 82% of middle-skill jobs required digital skills. Clearly, then, digital competency is at the core of the modern professional skillset. 

This need is only likely to increase further as business shifts increasingly to the digital realm. 

According to stats from Retail Economics, we will see over 50% of retail sales in the UK taking place online before the end of the decade. ONS statistics show that internet sales already account for as much as 20% of total sales. This percentage has been climbing rapidly since the ONS began to measure these figures, tripling over the last 10 years.

On a wider scale, the UN reports that estimates for the value of the digital economy vary, from 4.5% to 15.5% of world GDP. Either way, that’s a significant sum. This is a truly international phenomenon. Digitally deliverable service exports accounted for 50% of service exports, with a total value of $3 trillion.

The need for digital skills will only continue to increase. This will be exacerbated by Industry 4.0 – or the fourth industrial revolution. This will see a greater drive towards automation and cross-system data exchange, with two consequences: the loss of roles as they are automated, and a greater demand for those with advanced digital skills.

The World Economic Forum estimated in 2019 that 133 million new roles will be created by 2022 as a result of the new division of labour between humans, machines, and algorithms. The most in-demand skills, according to WEF estimates, will be big data analytics, app and web-enabled markets, and the internet of things.  

Finally, we might note that the coronavirus pandemic has put a further spin on matters. Workers who previously relied on in-person interaction now are compelled to use digital technologies to carry out their day-to-day functions. The pandemic will not last forever, but it is likely that remote working will become a more deeply-ingrained part of everyday working life.

How big is the digital skills gap?

Despite the importance of digital skills, there is a skills gap. In the UK, according to the Department for Education, the problems run deep, with 10% of working adults not in possession of basic digital skills. We can safely assume, then, that digital skills at a higher level will be sorely lacking. 

Indeed, only 12% of executives believed that UK graduates had satisfactory digital skills in 2018, according to Deloitte, down from 20% in 2017. Three quarters reported experiencing challenges in digital recruitment.

This digital skills gap has consequences not only for job seekers, but industry itself. The European Commission found that 38% of workplaces suffered negative results as a consequence of a lack of digital skills. This digital skills gap is more pronounced in highly-skilled professions.  

An EY report from 2018 echoes this. Almost half of European companies, according to their data, lacked skills in the areas of AI, cybersecurity, and robotics. For those sufficiently well-equipped and willing to develop such digital skills, there are opportunities, with 89% of companies intending to invest in training in order to rectify these digital skills gaps.

In the US, a Deloitte report from the same year found that Industry 4.0 was spurring rapid growth in job opportunities, though at the same time highlighting the scale of the digital skills gap. The professional services firm predicted that some 2.4 million jobs would be left unfilled from 2018 to 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion.  

While the coronavirus pandemic will slow down hiring, these highly-relevant positions are likely to be among the first to recover as businesses adjust to new ways of doing things. Those with digital skills will be well placed to prosper.

How do I learn digital skills?

The European Commission reports that while businesses report the negative impact of lacking digital skills, they have not been proactive in rectifying this. No fewer than 88% of workplaces have not engaged in any digital skills training for employees. The high cost of training is the most common impediment.

The onus remains on companies to upskill their employees. Some employees, however, may wish to take digital skills training into their own hands to improve processes and results, as well as their own employability. Having a grounding in digital skills can also help make the case to employers of their value – hopefully encouraging investment and further training.

For such employees wondering how to improve digital skills, as well as companies interested in upskilling their workforce, the suite of Accenture digital skills courses available on FutureLearn may prove a valuable introduction. These courses are available for free, removing cost as a barrier to entry for either constituency.

For those who wish and are able to embark on more in-depth studies, a range of different options are available, including professional certifications courses, diplomas, and master’s degrees. Online options sit alongside local provision in colleges and universities.

For companies in which digital skills are present, one of the key channels through which digital skills are imparted is on-the-job training, with junior staff learning and honing their digital skills with their managers. For companies going through digital transformations in particular, the passing of digital skills between employees will be a key learning channel.

The barrier for entry will be higher, however, where companies have completed their digital transformation, or in other cases are startups that have only existed in digital form. For such organisations, prospective employees at all but the most junior levels are required to be in possession of such skills before even being considered for roles.

Those looking to gain such skills can benefit from the Accenture digital skills course available through FutureLearn, and similar courses. These can benefit those looking to upskill and retrain, and can also serve as an introduction to further study.

Digital skills you can acquire on these courses include:

For those looking to hone their basic digital skills, various tutorials, courses, and how-to guides are available online. Local community provision might also be another way for those who prefer learning in-person. For those unable to make the first few steps, friends and family play an invaluable role, as well as local community courses. Various charities and other organisations also provide basic digital skills training to older users.

Those who know fundamental skills but are unsure of the next steps to take might benefit from Digital Skills: Grow Your Career.

How can digital skills help my career?

Acquiring digital skills will undoubtedly improve your career prospects.

In the above section where we discuss why digital skills are important, we highlighted how more and more roles require digital skills. In addition to this, new roles have come into being based around new digital skills. 15 years ago, web analysts, social media consultants, and PPC managers did not exist.

Acquiring digital skills will therefore allow you to compete in this context. Quite simply, there is a point in the not-too-distant future at which all non-manual roles will hinge on digital skills. UK Government stats from 2019 show that 82% of job openings required digital skills. These skills will also give your career staying power once you get a foot in the door; possessing specific digital skills such as SEO reduces a worker’s risk of automation by 59%.

The need for digital skills become more pronounced as we climb the career ladder – and will therefore be necessary for those seeking promotions. Another study conducted by Burning Glass, this time in the UK at the behest of the UK Government, found that listings for 83% of high-skill jobs and 85% of mid-skill jobs specifically called for digital skills. This compares to 77% of low-skill jobs; in itself an extremely high concentration.

Those with digital skills enjoy earnings premiums. The Burning Glass/Capital One US study cited above found that middle skills jobs that required basic digital skills paid $20/hour on average, compared to $15/hour for non-digital jobs. If we narrow the focus to advanced digital skills, the hourly rate becomes $28, putting earners in the top quartile.

In the UK, the average salary for ‘digital jobs’ according to Adzuna is £45,625. This compares to the median UK income of £25,000, rising to £30,000 for full-time work.

Those at all levels were found to enjoy earnings premiums, according to the Burning Glass study. This becomes more pronounced at the top, with high-skill workers with digital skills earning 33% more than those in non-digital occupations. For middle-skill jobs the figure is 19%, and even in low-skill jobs, the differential is a still notable 14%.

Again, the premium becomes even greater with advanced digital skills. The average salary for those with specific digital skills across skill levels stands at £40,000, compared to £29,500 for those with basic digital skills.

Finally, digital skills can also stand to boost the career of those who want to embrace the flexibility of freelance work. The digitisation of existing skillsets, and the creation of new digital professions means that remote and flexible working are more possible than ever. With the right skills, software and a good internet connection, anyone can be a digital freelancer.

Even the modes of pitching have become digital, with 2.8 million UK freelancers (out of a total of 4.8 million) reportedly offering their services through apps. There are apps, notes Forbes for every profession.

Find free digital skills training

Find out more about the Accenture courses and enrol to learn digital skills for free here.


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