With the government setting out its plans for infrastructure investment and skills, we need to better prepare for a digital economic future, writes Neil Bentley-Gockmann.

As we emerge from the worst stages of the coronavirus and start to deal with the economic and social consequences of having to shut down whole sectors of the economy, governments will be competing more fiercely than ever for investment to help sustain and create jobs. 

Underpinning this will be a renewed focus on higher quality skills, which will be critical for the future of the economy. This is certainly the message which comes across loud and clear in EY’s 2020 Attractiveness Survey ‘Building Back better’ which looks at trends in inward investment into the UK.

Attracting inward investment is as important now as it was in the early 1980s when the UK’s traditional industries were in decline and unemployment was high. EY identified in its report that investors prioritise skills supply over many other factors when looking for a location for their capital and that inward investors in the UK are particularly focused on digital projects.  This, combined with the tech sector representing almost 8 per cent of the UK economy and continuing to grow fast, means the development and supply of higher level digital skills will remain an economic priority.

The trends highlighted in EY’s survey are important to us at WorldSkills UK as we work with our partners across the UK and globally to address some of the challenges raised in the report about skills supply and quality.  We know from our recent work in launching our Centre of Excellence, in partnership with NCFE, that there is an incredible appetite in the sector, despite the current challenges, to drive excellence in technical education. That is why we have set out three key actions in our new report, Answering the call for digital skills excellence from international investors.

Firstly, we will explore new digital skills competitions.  Looking at our international performance at WorldSkills over the past six years, the UK ranks ninth globally and has potential to do better. In recent years we have moved into new digital areas, ranging from cyber security and 3D games and more recently to industry 4.0, industrial robotics and building information modelling.  However, by working with our partners in colleges and training providers and investing more in a broader range of digital skills to reach global standards, we will be helping develop the skills base needed to help attract more inward investment.   

Secondly, we will help level up digital investment beyond London. We will bring together sector leaders, who have signed up to the WorldSkills UK Centre of Excellence, to share best practice around on how developing higher standards can attract inward investment across the UK.  With current inward investment patterns for digital projects heavily skewed to London, we need to contribute to evening out investment opportunities and levelling up economic prosperity in areas where it is most needed. In tracking demand for our digital skills competitions, we see a wide geographic spread including from the Northwest England, West Midlands and East of England, Glasgow and South Wales. Such locations would be attractive to inward investors as more cost-effective locations to invest in to create new jobs if the right skill supply is in place.

Thirdly, we will focus more on global quality standards. We will bring partners together at an International Skills Summit in Autumn 2020 to debate what we can learn from international benchmarking in skills development to help drive up quality to world-class standards investors want to see.  As we look ahead to the next global competition in Shanghai in 2021, we will review the UK’s skills pedigree with insights into how other countries are developing their technical skills base, as well as looking ahead to the opportunity to showcase our skills to the rest of the world.

A focus on investor-led economic development is key to achieving prosperity. Please join us to turn insights into actions to help ensure the UK skills supply can help win more digital inward investment to maintain and create new jobs for more young people across the UK.