How Further Education Colleges Can Help Combat the Digital Skills Shortage

Research suggests that demand for digital skills will rise sharply between now and 2030, while the number of people with those skills will fall. In this article by Collab Group CEO, Ian Pretty, he makes the case for Further Education Colleges being the key to upskilling the existing workforce and negating a costly skills shortage.

Advances in AI and automation as well as rising incomes is driving a demand that we are not equipped to meet. Couple this with an ageing population, increasing technology spend, greater infrastructure spending, and a shift towards renewable energy, and we are looking at a daunting upward curve.

If left unaddressed, the impending skills shortage risks stifling economic growth across the UK, limiting employment opportunities and earnings, and negatively impacting overall performance, productivity, and prosperity. With 80% of the 2030 workforce already working today, reskilling/up-skilling the existing workforce is the major challenge between now and 2030.

Happily, the solution to this crisis already exists – in the form of further education colleges and the higher technical qualifications they offer. These institutions are best placed to teach the digital skills needed in the current – and future – world of work. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the technology sector to better understand and appreciate the value of higher technical qualifications and work more closely with further education colleges to combat the digital skills shortage.

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Understanding further education

Further education includes post-secondary school education and study (level 4/5) that is distinct from the higher education (level 6) offered at universities and other academic institutions. Level 4/5 – also known as higher technical qualifications – include apprenticeships, ‘technical education’, HNCs, foundation degrees, and the first two years of an undergraduate degree.

Across the UK, skills shortages are being felt most acutely in the industries serviced by higher technical qualifications, including digital skills. Invariably, these are practical skills – taught to a very high standard – that ensure job readiness and job effectiveness.

The argument for further education colleges

Our member colleges have qualified teachers who teach ‘in demand’ digital skills to an industry standard. They also offer smaller than average class sizes – around 11, compared to 20-30 for universities – which increases the amount of direct teaching time and access to specialised equipment, leading to better outcomes.

Further education colleges tend to recruit from the local area and offer a more supportive learning environment. Around 81% of higher technical education students live nearby their institution compared to those at universities (56%). This means learners at our colleges get what they need, when they need it, and are more likely to graduate.

Our research also shows that our colleges are better than universities at listening to the needs of the industries we partner with. That means people leaving further education colleges are more likely to be ‘job ready’ than their university counterparts – and are therefore a better pool of talent for businesses in the technology sector.

With 80% of the 2030 workforce already working today, reskilling/up-skilling the existing workforce is the major challenge between now and 2030.

Ian Pretty
CEO, Collab Group.


How can technology businesses access this talent pool?

n addition to understanding the skills and knowledge gained from further education colleges, the technology sector must reject the existing narrative that universities produce the best graduates and most promising future employees. Further education colleges are producing highly qualified, highly capable people, with all the knowledge, skills and experience to be successful in the new world of work.

And in a tight labour market, where competition is fiercer than ever, the digital sector must look beyond universities for recruitment. In fact, analysts claim the recent fall in unemployment from 3.8% to 3.6% for May to July 2022 – its lowest level since 1974 – shows inflation-linked pay claims risk worsening the current economic situation.

Therefore, it is essential that the technology sector looks beyond university and towards further education colleges across the UK. There is a deep pool of rich talent that can satisfy the sector’s short- and long-term recruitment needs, and before the digital skills shortage negatively impacts performance, productivity and prosperity across the UK.


Ian Pretty
CEO, Collab Group

Ian Pretty is Chief Executive Officer of the Collab Group, a membership organisation representing a network of colleges and college groups of further education (FE) in the United Kingdom. The Collab Group works with its network of FE colleges and college groups to promote and further their interests and to provide solutions for the UK’s skills and economic growth challenges. It also works with partners in the skills and employment sector, and elsewhere, to transform the current system of technical and professional education.