Brian Fallow: Digital skills are essential skills

OPINION:

Ever feel like a bewildered immigrant in the land of digital natives? If so, you aren’t alone.

The BNZ’s Digital Skills Report, summarising the results of survey commissioned by the bank and carried out by Colmar Brunton, describes a level of deficiency in essential digital skills that is disturbing for anyone who caresabout inequality or about productivity.

The survey of 1000 members of the general public aged 18 or older found 95 per cent had access to the internet at home, an improvement on the 86 per cent in the 2018 census or 91 per cent in the 2017 New Zealand election study. And 89 per cent said they used it every day.

But it’s a different matter when it comes to possessing the skills needed to use the internet effectively and safely. One in five adults were found to lack essential digital skills.

The survey testedwhether respondents have 34 specific digital skills, grouped into six categories.

Things like “Do you know how to attach documents and photos to an email?” That can be essential when applying for jobs online.

Or “Do you know what the padlock and ‘https’ in the address bar mean?” Only about half did.

The report’s author, BNZ chief economist Paul Conway, said that with internet scams becoming increasingly common and sophisticated, it was concerning that on average one in four New Zealanders lacked online safety skills, the lowest score among the categories.

If someone could not tick at least one box in eachcategory, they were deemed to lack essential digital skills.

For the population as a whole, 20 per cent lacked essential skills, while 23 per cent ticked all 34 boxes. The other 57 per cent have holes in their digital skill sets.

Unsurprisingly, it found digital skills inversely correlated to age. That’s my excuse, anyway.

“Unfortunately demographic groups with low digital skills mirror existing lines of disadvantage in New Zealand,” Conway said. That includes low household income, lower educational attainment and disability.

“Critically, if digital skills gaps across these groups are not addressed, inequality in New Zealand will likely get worse as the digital transformation rolls on.” As well as being increasingly important on the job, digital skills are also becoming vital in getting a job, Conway said.

“Digitally skilled New Zealanders are three times more likely to apply for a job online and twice as likely to use the internet for professional development compared with people with weak digital skills. With recruitment moving increasingly online, Kiwis with low digital capability are at risk of missing out.” As more and more economic activity moves online, in terms of a spectrum of skills, digital proficiency is closer to being literate than, say, to being able to drive.

As the Productivity Commission has just reminded us, New Zealand suffers from capital shallowness — too little investment per worker in plant, machinery and software — as well as from public underinvestment in infrastructure. This has long hobbled productivity and incomes.

But no less important than the sort of capital that gets recorded in balance sheets is human capital, the portable kind, that employees bring to a job.

A haphazard approach to building human capital in the form of digital skills carries the risk of even more stunted productivity in the future. It is a threat to both the demand and the supply sides of the economy.

Narrowing the digital divide and addressing these skills gaps will require a New Zealand Inc team effort, Conway argues. The private sector, the Government and the not-for-profit sector all have a part to play.

“People need to be able to access support in their digital learning based on their needs, more so than any one individual organisation has to offer,” Conway said.

“Many providers of digital training are very small community organisations, trusts or not-for-profits employing one or two people. While these people do incredibly important work their effectiveness could be enhanced through a joined-up approach. InternetNZ is currently pulling the digital inclusion sector together through the Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa.”

InternetNZ’s plan for digital inclusion includes making devices available to low income people at low, or no, cost. “Efforts are under way to get devices (and connectivity) to school age children but there are many New Zealanders in other age groups who can’t afford devices appropriate to their needs. Solutions might include bulk purchasing or grant funding (without unnecessary contestability),” it says.

It also argues that the economic impacts of Covid-19 will leave many people looking for new employment, while businesses will be thinking more about opportunities in the online world.

So InternetNZcalls for government-funded skills training to support job seekers —long advocated by the union movement— and for support packages to help businesses get online.

For his part, Conway hopes that future iterations of the BNZ’s Digital Skills Survey will drill down into what is happening among small and medium enterprises, and among farmers.

Source: Read Full Article