Are millennials the answer to the digital skills gap?

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Employing tech-savvy millennials seems an obvious short cut to help businesses keep up to speed with the digital revolution.

After all, the members of the millennial generation have grown up on digital devices. So they should be a big asset when it comes to getting ahead in the digitally-driven world.

Indeed millennials do have a lot to offer. But a complete solution is more complex.

A 2018 study by global consulting firm Accenture has highlighted that G20 countries face missing out on as much as $1.5 trillion in GDP growth over the next ten years if they fail to adapt to the new technological era.

And if the failure to close the digital skills gap continues, the UK economy alone could forfeit as much as £141.5 billion of the GDP growth, promised by investment in intelligent technologies over the next ten years.

Are millennials always digitally literate?

First, a reality check. Millennials may know a lot. But they don’t know everything.

“Tech-savvy doesn’t necessarily mean digitally literate,” explains Mark Frydenberg, senior lecturer in Computer Information Systems at Bentley University, a leading US business school in Boston.

“Millennials are proficient in using social and digital media as personal tools for communication and collaboration. They need to learn to translate those skills into the workplace, and be aware of the workplace environment differences that result when using personal tools in a business context,” he said.

Digital natives they may be, but be wary of tunnel-vision setting in when you are recruiting. Traditional skills, and digital skills developed in the workplace, are still just as vital.

“Millennials who have grown up with devices need to understand not only how to use them with savvy, but also effectively and ethically,” advises Frydenberg.

Recruit staff with useful digital skills

Companies should avoid assumptions when recruiting. They need to follow a thorough process to establish exactly what skills candidates have.

For example, millennials are more likely to think smartphone than computer when it comes to tech. They are twice as likely to own a smartwatch than previous generations. But they are less likely to own a computer or tablet.

Potential candidates exist who are both digitally aware and savvy business professionals. Millennials are more likely to be the proactive digital explorers that businesses need. But it’s essential to carry out due diligence to find out where their technical curiosity has led them.

Accountants level up their digital skills
Accounting and finance students at Bentley University now choose the computer information systems course – where students learn skills such as database technologies, web development, programming and data modelling – as a companion course. Students realise that “when they enter the workforce they are going to need those [essential digital] skills, regardless of what they do for real,” said Frydenberg.

Train for potential

Be wary of overlooking the potential in your current staff.

Upskilling has several benefits for individuals and the company as a whole, which we discuss in further detail in our article, How to smash through the skills ceiling.

“Organisations need to hire workers with these [digital] skills, or give current workers the opportunity to develop their skills so that employees and the companies they work for, can continue to succeed,” advises Frydenberg.

Skills gap
Recent research found UK businesses are missing out on a pool of untapped talent because they are not upskilling their employees. The UK is spending just two-thirds of the European average on adult training, and investment is in decline.

The cross-generational approach

The sweet spot for organisations is not in choosing between ‘either’ millennials ‘or’ existing staff. It’s making the most of both.

“Pairing younger tech-savvy workers with older business professionals to create a cross-generational dynamic in the workforce can enable companies to succeed,” recommends Frydenberg.

This translates into a powerful multi-pronged approach for creating your digital workforce. Recruit millennials to bring in digital natives who will propel you forward, but also bring in more experienced employees who have learned those digital skills you need through experience. And unite your team internally by fostering a culture of partnership between colleagues.

Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a millennial workplace expert, and bestselling author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough and The Breakthrough Speaker, agrees that the synergy of bringing together young people with digital skills and older people who have industry experience works well.

“When you have both [digital skills and business acumen] that’s where you get innovation, creativity, shared learning, progress, the knowledge exchange, the mentorship, the coaching, and so you get the win-win,” he said.

How to address an uncertain future

According to the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey of 2019, growing up in a world of accelerated transformation leaves millennials and Gen Zs feeling unsettled about the future.

“I think that nobody understands actually how deep and impactful this kind of new wave of automation is going to be. Nobody wants to be transparent and authentic about how many jobs are going to be lost,” said Poswolsky.

Uncertainty at the highest level of leadership can trickle down, leaving lower level staff with a lack of stability or confidence in their future. Every firm and industry needs a team of people focussed on the potential future impact of technology and how to deal with the consequences for employees, Poswolsky said.

“What I’m getting at is a deep kind of honesty that this is a big thing and we need to address it,” said Powolsky.  “It’s about the preparedness and the communication around it. And I think it’s not just how to use the technology but what the technology means.”


Are millennials the key to creating a digital workforce?

No. But they are certainly an important part. Experts recommend an attack on multiple fronts in order to create a robust digital workforce.

Recruitment of both millennials and more experienced employees is advised, but perhaps the biggest challenge is in creating the right culture within your company to ensure cross-generational collaboration, leading to innovation and progress.

Click to read more on how to create a great culture for success.

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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