Reskilling people over 50 to work in technology could deliver an additional 119,000 IT specialists to the UK workforce and provide "a significant step" in addressing the digital skills gap, a new study has found.
Research from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT identified 13,000 unemployed IT specialists in the UK aged 50 and over in 2020.
At the same time, while 31% of the UK's workforce is aged 50+, only 22% of people working in IT roles are over 50 years old.
If representation in IT was equal to the workforce norm, there would have been an additional 119,000 IT specialists in the UK aged 50 and over – or 480,000 in total.
BCS said the lack of older people working in tech was "a strong indication that this group need to reskill," particularly as the UK faces down a worsening digital skills shortage as the country emerges from the pandemic.
"There continues to be a significant demand for digital skills - not just for an increasing number of digital occupations, but across all occupations as a result of businesses having to digitally transform during COVID," said Kathy Farndon, Chair of BCS Society Board.
"Currently, almost 70% of employers are struggling to find workers with the right skills, which is costing British industry billions."
According to BCS, in 2020 there were estimated to be around 13,000 unemployed IT specialists in the UK aged 50 and over, which equates to an unemployment rate of 3.4% - well above the rate for IT specialists aged 16-49 (2.2%). In 2019 this was 8,000, which BCS said indicated a "significant worsening of the situation."
BCS said the issue could be attributed to a number of factors, including the fact that the over 50s were not brought up as "digital natives" and were less likely to be comfortable with technology when compared to younger generations.
However, age discrimination is also a factor, said Dr. Bill Mitchell OBE, director of policy at BCS. "We certainly have anecdotal evidence from our members at BCS that sometimes they have faced age discrimination when it comes to applying for tech jobs," Mitchell said.
A May 2021 study by the UK government's Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) found that almost half of businesses (46%) have struggled to recruit for roles that require data skills over the past two years. Meanwhile, it is estimated that there are between 178,000 and 234,000 data roles in the UK needing to be filled.
Research that same month by digital skills coalition FutureDotNow estimated that some 17.1 million UK adults – approximately 52% of the country's workforce – lack essential digital skills, which threatens to severely impact both businesses and the wider UK economy as investments in technology accelerate.
BCS's study found that while younger IT specialists were much more likely to hold an IT degree than those aged 50 and above, older professionals were more likely to hold positions of authority, with almost half (47%) having managerial or supervisory status in their roles, compared with 38% of younger IT specialists. However, this was down from 52% in 2019.
Given the UK's aging population, Mitchell said it "absolutely makes sense" for employers to invest in more mature staff and enable them to "keep up to speed with new technology and the demands of a digital economy."
He added: "Retaining and upskilling these key team members is vital to support retention and motivation as people feel in control of adapting to technological developments."
BCS labeled government plans to introduce a Lifetime Skills Guarantee as a "significant step" towards addressing the UK's growing digital skills gap, by providing more people with access to training.
Mitchell added that many employers were unaware of the resources they could use to upskill their employees. "There are a range of digital apprenticeships including in cybersecurity, software and data analysis – and it doesn't matter how old the apprentices are when it comes to funding," he said.
"Employers can benefit from apprenticeships that support the ongoing development of their workforce to bring on new talent, as long as those developing their skills have a genuine training need."