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


The term “digital literacy” used to mean knowing how to send emails or type with a word processing program.

It was a skill in high demand from knowledge workers—people who could use specific software at work and would need to know how to handle it clearly and naturally.

But this expression has evolved significantly. Digital literacy now means knowing the techniques needed to succeed in a society where communication and access to information increasingly depend on digital technologies such as online platforms and cell phones.

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

Today, digital literacy is no longer a functional proposition, but a mindset. In the modern workplace, employees are increasingly expected to quickly adopt whatever technology comes with their work and also to adapt to ever-evolving tools and approaches. Professionals also need to use technology strategically: from working with their personal cell phones to driving collaborative workflow programs.

And, most importantly, digital knowledge is no longer essential only among knowledge workers. “It is being applied universally to almost everyone,” says Ying Zhou, director of the Center for Research on the Future of Work at the University of Surrey in the UK.

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

“Each new technology developed increases the knowledge requirements of professionals”, according to her. “It’s a race between digital knowledge and technology: the more technology advances, the faster we need to update our knowledge. The target is changing all the time.”

Why everyone needs digital literacy

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

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

The job market demand for digitally savvy professionals has been growing steadily since the 1980s. Zhou cites research showing that while the demand for reading and arithmetic skills in the British job market has stabilised, the number of positions requiring Digital expertise continued to grow.

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

Technology is no longer specific to a few sectors.

“Digital literacy and employer demand for digital skills have evolved as the economy and job market has been digitized,” said Danny Stacy, head of intelligence and talent at London-based human resources platform Indeed. “What used to be a bonus is now a fundamental component of virtually every job.”

And this digital literacy requirement reached its peak as employers adopted hybrid or remote working standards.

“Employers are now much better able to identify specific digital skills and name the software they use,” according to Stacy. “More ability to use specific software and project and office management tools is required so that employees can work more efficiently.”

But the rise in importance of digital literacy doesn’t mean that professionals need to master every piece of software out there 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 make routine tasks easier and increase collaboration in the workplace; and also having the flexibility and adaptability to learn new processes.

And today, professionals need to keep in mind that they will continue to update their digital skills. After all, the expectation when an employee takes on a new role is that they have the digital knowledge necessary for the role or that they will learn — and fast.

“Hybrid and remote work only reached 5% of the job market before the pandemic,” says Zhou. “It’s now about half of all professionals. Regardless of the work you used to do, the employer now expects you to assimilate any and all digital skills that are necessary for your role.”

how to anticipate

Positive news is that professionals probably already have some digital literacy, even if that expression is unknown to them.

The ubiquity of technology means that almost everyone sends emails and other messages, swipes, clicks and scrolls. All of this often translates into technological expertise in the professional environment. And 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 accelerated, companies often offer training to help them acquire whatever digital expertise they need.

“With a shortage of professionals, 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 take the form of on-the-job training, online learning or development courses. But Zhou ponders that one of the best ways for employees to increase their digital literacy is to simply do their work in a trial-and-error process.

“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 lagging behind in their digital literacy, using technology at home provides opportunities to experiment and learn.

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

Zhou says that while most professionals in the workforce may not need very complex computer skills right now, digital literacy is an ever-growing basic need. This means that professionals who keep their technological knowledge up to date continue to evolve in a constantly changing job market, which increasingly values ​​digital knowledge.

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

This text was originally published here.

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