The digital skills shortage is an ever-present threat for UK businesses, but it has become particularly acute during the pandemic, with society’s reliance on technology becoming exponentially greater. This is leading to a particularly troubling state of affairs where cybersecurity is concerned.
Julie Nugent is the Director of Productivity and Skills at West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). Established in 2016, WMCA is a group of 18 local councils and three local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) working together to make the West Midlands region a better place to live and work. Here she shares her thoughts on battling the cybersecurity skills shortage with digital boot camps.
According to the UK government’s Cyber Security Breaches Survey, the risk of cyber-attacks has risen sharply, at the same time that businesses’ ability to defend against them has been hindered by remote working practices. Further, cyber security skills training has failed to keep pace with this evolving landscape – one 2021 report found that the UK’s cyber skills shortage has surged by more than a third in the past 12 months. It’s crucial that we tackle this issue.
What’s on the line?
The heightened prevalence of cyber-attacks is clear to see, but what are the costs for businesses faced with a breach?
The more apparent financial costs incurred include theft of money, corporate information, and financial information, such as bank details or payment card details. For example, in 2020, 46% of SMEs reported cyber security breaches, costing an annual average of £8,170 for lost data or assets. A survey by PwC revealed that 79% of UK CEOs fear cyber-attacks as the biggest threat to their business.
Further, the damages can be reputational and technological, with companies having to spend time on recovering from attacks. Indeed, the wider disruptions to trading could potentially cost a business a contract or customer trust.
The question, then, is how to better equip businesses – or, more specifically, employees – with the requisite skills to identify, prevent and manage cybersecurity threats.
A human-centric approach
For all the technological progress made in developing software to fight off the threat of cyber-attacks, the answer ultimately lies with humans. Tellingly, an IBM study suggests that human error is the main cause in 95% of cyber security breaches. So, a human-centric solution is required – namely, better education, better processes and better skills.
At present, as noted above, those skills are lacking. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022 found that 59% of organisations would find it challenging to respond to a cybersecurity incident due to the shortage of skills within their team.
Therefore, it is crucial companies hire employees – not only those within the IT department or cybersecurity positions, but across their workforce – who have practical cybersecurity training and can confront breaches when they occur. And this will only be possible if more people are given access to the training, they need to develop these skills, whether to be applied in their current or a future role.
Undoubtedly, this training should begin at school and university levels, allowing young people to enter the workforce with a sufficient amount of cybersecurity knowledge. Yet, relying on the education sector is wholly unrealistic – this is true of the digital skills gap as a whole. Rather, key responsibilities instead lie in collaboration between the public and private sectors – digital skills boot camps are a great example of this.
Digital skills boot camps
Digital skills boot camps are free, flexible courses for adults aged 19 and over who are either in work or recently unemployed. The boot camps, which typically last for anything between 12 and 16 weeks, give people the opportunity to build sector-specific skills.
Employers can benefit in two ways: they can provide interview opportunities to people who have up-to-date digital skills training, or they can upskill existing employees by enrolling them on the courses.
With a £7 million grant, WMCA has piloted over 30 digital boot camps and trained around 2,000 adults with essential tech skills. Now, £21 million has been made available from the Adult Education Budget to fund the new boot camps over the next three years, with a target of supporting more than 4,000 people.
Cybersecurity is a key pillar within the boot camps – as indeed is true of most digital skills courses, out of recognition of just pressing the need is for better training in this arena.
Evidently, initiatives such as digital skills boot camps will play a crucial role in developing tech-competent individuals for the workforce. As stated, not only will this mean more positions filled within the cybersecurity industry or other specialist sectors; it will also ensure that others in digital spaces, from marketing and analytics to coding and development, possess valuable cybersecurity skills.
Accordingly, I would encourage employers to search for existing digital skills partnerships in their area, and if possible, interact with the courses as a very focused, practical means of improving their access to necessary digital skills training.