Companies are key to solving the digital skills gap

The digital skills gap is becoming a digital skills crisis. An innovation expert discusses the root cause of what is driving the digital skills shortage and how can companies contribute to closing the gap.

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In order to reduce the digital skills gap, all companies need to see themselves as education companies.

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The digital skills gap is becoming a digital skills crisis. A global survey shows that nearly 90 percent of executives are experiencing skills gaps in their workforce, or expect to within a few years. In Europe, to take one example, 90 percent of employers require workers to have at least basic digital skills, while only around 60 percent of citizens over 16 meet that standard. The story is similar across North America, Latin America and Asia. 

Reskilling workers is critical not only for the global economy to recover from the pandemic, but also for sustainable long-term growth and an inclusive future workforce. Unless G20 countries invest in addressing the skills gap, they could miss out on an estimated $11.5 trillion in cumulative GDP growth by 2028. 

I sat down with Salesforce's Chief Innovation Officer, Simon Mulcahy, for his insight on what's driving the digital skills shortage and how companies can contribute to closing the gap. 


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Simon Mulcahy, chief innovation officer at Salesforce 

Vala Afshar: When we talk about the digital skills gap, what do we really mean?

Simon Mulcahy: Fundamentally, it's an issue of supply and demand: a mismatch between the need for a digitally savvy workforce and the availability of workers trained in those skills. Every organization — whether a bank, healthcare company or retailer — is becoming a digital organization. Core digital skills aren't the purview of a single department but increasingly hard-wired into nearly every job on the planet. 

On the flip side, there's a massive shortage in the skills needed to operate and lead in a digital-first environment. More importantly, there's no mechanism in place to fix it. 

VA: What kinds of skills are in high demand?

SM: Of course, we need workers with technical expertise in things like coding, artificial intelligence, user experience design and cloud computing. But we also need people who have the soft skills necessary to leverage technology to solve real-world problems. 

Every business unit needs to know how to craft digital experiences that serve customers effectively. Managers need to train and empower employees in a digital-first world. And executives and boards need to be digitally savvy enough to navigate issues like cybersecurity and privacy. 

VA: What are some of the biggest reasons behind the digital skills gap?

SM: Even before the pandemic, most industries were undergoing major digital transformation. Technology has evolved at lightning speed, and customers have increasingly demanded personalized service on their channel of choice. Companies have faced enormous pressure to reinvent themselves in order to stay competitive, which has fueled demand for digital skills. 

COVID-19 dramatically accelerated this migration to digital, pushing companies of every size around the world to digitize at record speed. The pandemic ushered in a seismic mindset shift around how we live, work and consume, which has only widened the already large skills gap.

As a contrast to the rapid pace of innovation, we've seen stasis when it comes to arming workers with the right capabilities. Historically, education has been viewed as a one-time experience you complete early on and leverage throughout your career. With the exception of executive training, the system is still set up this way. This dated mindset means that a large percentage of the world has not acquired the skills they need to prepare for a quickly digitizing world. 

VA: The G20 countries could miss out on trillions of dollars in growth if nothing changes. If we don't do anything to address the digital skills crisis now, what would the impact be? 

SM: People are hungry for products and services they can consume digitally. If that happens effectively, then money changes hands, and the demand fuels economic growth. In a world where that doesn't happen, growth is constrained, and there's more demand for fewer things. The price of those optimal digital offerings goes up, and you'll see winners and losers. 

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Critically, those gains and losses will be unfairly distributed. Women, underrepresented minorities and people in the developing world who have trouble accessing digital skills will find it much harder to join the digital revolution and risk being left behind. 

VA: What can be done to address this growing gap, and what role should companies play?

SM: We need to revamp the way we deliver education. Of course, we need to build a foundation early on, but there are much better ways to equip people than through exams that don't evolve to match society's needs or degrees that force young people into onerous debt.

Instead, we should think of ourselves as lifelong learners. In support of that, we need just-in-time training that's integrated into our working experience and relevant to wherever we are on our career journey. We need education that's widely available, simple to access and affordable. It has to be easy to upskill or gain the knowledge we need to divert onto a different path. We also need education to be a lot more personal, matching what an individual needs in the moment. 

This all requires massive innovation, and that's where the private sector comes in. Until now, we've left it to educators or the government to fix the education system, but companies need to become more active partners in revolutionizing education. They're the ones that know what skills they need and are adept at innovating. 

VA: What are some examples of companies that are on the right track? 

SM: Startups like Coursera and the Khan Academy have demonstrated the promise of an immersive and modern online learning experience without the traditional burden of cost. Companies like GE have founded training initiatives that integrate continuous learning into their corporate culture. Trailhead, Salesforce's free online learning platform, is also a game-changing model that helps people with little technical knowledge skill up for roles in the Salesforce ecosystem, from anywhere and at their own pace. Its certifications and micro-credentials are an example of moving away from dependence on degrees toward tailored educational experiences. Salesforce's Trailblazer Community allows members to share knowledge and provide mutual support for navigating the educational process, as well as solving for poor market mechanisms by helping people find relevant opportunities. 

Ultimately, all companies need to see themselves as education companies. Their mission is no longer just to produce products and services, but also to integrate educational experiences into the context of work. Democratizing education is key to closing the digital skills gap and ensuring the fruits of technological innovation are distributed equitably.