Workers in lower-skilled jobs are often seen as particularly vulnerable to automation as well as more likely to struggle with new digital skill requirements at work. With widespread concerns of growing digital skills shortages, and even a ‘digital skills crisis’, policy discussion focuses on ‘future proofing’ the workforce by retraining workers to cope with the digital skills assumed to be required for task changes or new jobs (OECD 2016). But what are digital skills and what are the requirement for those in lower-skilled jobs?
Given the plethora of reports on digital skills, clear answers might be expected. Unfortunately, this is not the case. We can point to four key issues:
- Defining digital skills is a difficult task, as they span everything from using a computer mouse to ‘blockchain’ development.
- There is a lack of agreement on whether the focus should be on typologies of technical capabilities or frameworks of underlying competences and behaviours.
- Current debates on digital skills are far removed from their use in the workplace.
- There are few studies that identify the digital skills required of workers in specific jobs and workplaces.
As part of a project on the digitalisation of work in the UK and Norway, with links to the Digital Futures of Work Research Programme, we have published our findings on digital skill use among workers in lower skilled jobs.
The study focuses on workplace case studies covering:
- production operatives using robotic technologies in food and drink processing plants and
- logistic workers, such as porters, using automated guided vehicles in hospitals.
The paper asks how demanding are digital skill requirements in these jobs, how difficult are they to acquire, and whether there are country differences. The expectation was that digital skill demands would be greater in Norway, given higher wage costs and unions in a stronger position to push for jobs with higher skill requirements. Furthermore, given narrower divides in digital competence among the general population in Norway (OECD 2019), as well as a more effective vocational education and training system, workers might be thought to have less difficulty learning new digital skills than in the UK.
What did the research find?
Digital skill requirements: In both countries, most workers in these jobs used limited digital skills, such as those required to operate a digital scanner or a simple on-screen menu system. These skills are little different from those used to scan a barcode on a mobile phone or buy a ticket from a self-service machine. In a few cases, however, digital skill demands were more complex, as workers were handling multiple software applications and integrating different data sources. According to official classifications (EC 2021), all of these skills would be lumped together as ‘basic’, an indication of the bluntness of such typologies.
Learning digital skills: Contrary to expectations, there was little evidence that UK workers encountered more problems learning digital skills than workers in Norway. For most workers, digital skills are learnt in everyday life through using mobile phones, ipads and personal computers, and then applied to new situations in work, primarily through short work-based training and/or learning-by-doing. Even the more complex digital skills, identified in some cases, did not require workers to have formal qualifications or more than very short periods of off-the-job training. Nevertheless, some individuals, predominantly older workers, still struggle to learn to use the technology, even if the numbers are relatively small.
Digital skills are not used in isolation: Digital skills are often only a small part of the skills and knowledge used in these jobs. For example, some food processing operatives are expected to run production lines and fix minor machine malfunctions. Drawing on their experience, they have to make fine adjustments to digital control systems because of the non-standard nature of the ingredients. Without a ‘feeling’ for the product that is built up over time, it can be difficult to operationalise digital skills within the production process. Although younger workers are generally seen to find learning digital skills easier, experienced workers have other comparative advantages. An interesting question for further research is how knowledge is shared between these two groups when ‘learning the technology’.
Public policy implications: The main conclusion is to caution against exaggerating the scale of the digital skills problem, at least for workers in some low-skilled jobs. This is not to deny that there are some digital skills gaps but it does indicate a more nuanced approach is required to digital skills provision. This study also suggests that in many workplaces digitalisation may not imply radical transformation in digital skills, but rather small-scale reskilling and incremental change.
Caroline Lloyd and Jonathan Payne (2022) ‘Digital skills in context: working with robots in lower-skilled jobs’ Economic and Industrial Democracy, forthcoming. The research was funded by a British Academy/Leverhulme small grant. Access the paper here
EC (2021) International Digital Economy and Society Index 2020 SMART 2019/0087 Final Report. Luxembourg: European Union.
OECD (2016) Skills for a Digital World, Digital Economy Papers, No 250, Paris: OECD.
OECD (2019) How’s Life in the Digital Age? Opportunities and Risks of the Digital Transformation for People’s Well-being, http://www.oecd.org/publications/how-s-life-in-the-digital-age-9789264311800-en.htm