How ‘digital skills’ in the workforce are changing over time

Having digital skills used to mean basic computer knowledge. But now you have to work adaptively and strategically using a variety of tools, devices and platforms.

The term “digital literacy” used to mean knowing how to send e-mails or type in a word processor.

It was a skill that was in high demand by skilled workers – people who could use certain software at work and needed to know how to operate it clearly and naturally.

But this term has evolved significantly. Digital literacy now means knowing the techniques needed to succeed in a society where communication and access to information are increasingly dependent on digital technologies such as internet platforms and mobile phones.

The concept encompasses a broad understanding of a range of digital tools that enable professionals to perform their functions, either in the office, in a hybrid or remote manner in all types of environments. These tools include real-time collaboration software such as professional chat applications and sophisticated asynchronous work tools.

Today, digital literacy is no longer a functional proposition, but a way of thinking. In the modern workplace, employees are increasingly expected to quickly adopt any technology that comes with their work and to adapt to constantly evolving tools and approaches. Professionals also need to use technology strategically: from working with their personal cell phones to launching collaborative workflow programs.

And most importantly, digital knowledge is no longer important only among skilled workers. “It applies universally to almost everything,” says Ying Zhou, director of the Future of Work Research Center at the University of Surrey in the UK.

In 2019, a UK government report found that at least 82% of job vacancies posted online required digital skills. And Zhou says professionals who stop acquiring this knowledge risk being left behind.

According to her, every newly developed technology increases the knowledge requirements of specialists. “It’s a race between digital knowledge and technology: the more technology advances, the faster we have to update our knowledge. The goal is constantly changing.”

Why everyone needs digital literacy

“Digital literacy is a broad concept. You can simply work with digital devices or perform very complex tasks,” Zhou continues.

“It can range from printing store receipts to using word processors and spreadsheets, as well as advanced services like web design, data analysis, computer programming and coding,” she says.

The labor market demand for digitally savvy professionals has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. Zhou cites research showing that while demand for reading and arithmetic skills in the UK labor market has stabilized, the number of positions requiring digital expertise has continued to rise.

Over time, employers have come to expect some degree of digital literacy even for non-technical roles—from warehouse operators using cloud management systems to doctors consulting patients remotely via video and contractors managing construction projects in mobile collaboration apps.

A woman using a mobile phone and a computer

Digital literacy has become essential for almost every job as technology has revolutionized processes and industries

Technology is no longer specific to a few sectors.

“Digital literacy and employer demand for digital skills has evolved as the economy and labor market have digitized,” said Danny Stacy, head of intelligence and talent at London-based HR platform Indeed. “What used to be a bonus is now a core component of almost every business.”

And this demand for digital literacy peaked when employers embraced hybrid or telecommuting standards.

“Employers are now much better able to identify specific digital skills and name the software they use,” says Stacy. “A greater ability to use specific project and office management software and tools is needed to enable employees to work more efficiently.”

But the growing importance of digital literacy doesn’t mean that professionals have to master every piece of software to get a job. In fact, they need to be confident in the digital arena; be willing to try new technologies; adopt the right tools that can facilitate routine tasks and increase collaboration in the workplace; and also have the flexibility and adaptability to learn new processes.

And today’s professionals must keep in mind that they will continue to improve their digital skills. After all, when an employee takes on a new role, they are expected to have the digital knowledge required for the role or to learn – and quickly.

“Hybrid and remote work only reached 5% of the labor market before the pandemic,” says Zhou. “That’s about half of all professionals now. Regardless of the job you did before, an employer now expects you to acquire all the digital skills that are required for your role.”

how to predict

The positive news is that professionals probably already have some digital literacy, even if they are unfamiliar with the term.

The ubiquity of technology means that almost everyone is sending emails and other messages, swiping, clicking and scrolling. All of this often translates into technological expertise in a professional environment. Even if workers feel they haven’t reached the point they want or need, there are ways to improve this important knowledge.

When their employees need to be brought up to speed, companies often offer training to help them gain the digital expertise they need.

“With the skills shortage, employers are showing a greater willingness than ever before to train and empower candidates rather than chasing the end product,” says Stacy.

This training can be in the form of on-the-job training, online learning or development courses. But Zhou believes that one of the best ways for employees to increase their digital literacy is to simply do the work through trial and error.

“Informal learning, sharing knowledge with peers, is one of the most proven ways to acquire new skills,” he says.

And what people do outside of work also helps. For employees who are behind in digital literacy, using technology at home provides opportunities for experimentation and learning.

For example, having a video call with a friend instead of a text message can help familiarize an employee with the apps they’ll be using at work. Using social media can help him get used to the more informal forms of communication he’ll find in workplace collaboration tools.

Zhou says that while most professionals in the workforce may not currently need highly complex computer skills, digital literacy is an increasingly basic need. This means that professionals who update their technological knowledge continue to develop in an ever-changing job market that increasingly values ​​digital knowledge.

“Digital knowledge ends up offering more bargaining power in the labor market,” says Zhou. “The professional environment has changed in favor of those with greater digital literacy.”

Read the original version of this report on the BBC Worklife website.

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