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Firms being 'left behind' by digital skills shortage warns Kent group of Federation of Small Businesses

By Chris Price

The economy is under threat from a “black hole” in technical and digital skills as the UK heads towards Brexit, according to a campaigner for small businesses in the county.

Stephen Askew, who sits on the Kent steering group of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), warned productivity growth will continue to stall without government action to tackle a digital skills deficit.

It comes as research shows a quarter of business owners in England lack confidence in their basic digital skills.

FSB research shows a quarter of business owners in England lack confidence in their basic digital skills
FSB research shows a quarter of business owners in England lack confidence in their basic digital skills

Meanwhile, more than a fifth believe a lack of basic digital skills among staff is holding them back from increasing their online presence, said the findings from the FSB.

Just under a third which have tried to recruit in the year since the Brexit vote have struggled to find workers to fill roles because of acute skills shortages.

Mr Askew, a partner at accountancy Haines Watts, which has offices in Maidstone and Canterbury, said: “Productivity is being hampered by nagging skills shortages which are making recruitment a nightmare for small firms.

“As the UK moves towards Brexit, a technical skills black hole threatens the economy.

“Small firms also tell us that technical skills are crucial to the future growth of their businesses. The clock is ticking to tackle the ever-widening skills gap.”

Haines Watts partner Stephen Askew is on the FSB's Kent steering group
Haines Watts partner Stephen Askew is on the FSB's Kent steering group

He added: “We know that embracing digital technology can help businesses in every sector to be more productive.

“Firms risk being left behind unless they have the skills to take advantage of technology to remain competitive and responsive to their customers.”

The comments come after the government announced £30 million had been set aside in the Budget for digital skills distance learning courses.

Yet the research by the FSB also showed 49% of small firms do not have a formal training plan or budget, rising to three quarters for the self employed.

Becky Simms, managing director at Maidstone-based marketing agency Reflect Digital, said: “We have identified the need for training as a growth area with our clients.

“Too often we see businesses making the wrong decisions by not having the right tracking in place to properly evaluate the success of their digital campaigns.

Reflect Digital managing director Becky Simms
Reflect Digital managing director Becky Simms

“Without this knowledge business owners are losing out on the biggest benefit digital offers; transparency, which when achieved really can drive business growth.”

Small firms say the main barriers to training are the fact that their staff are too busy (25%), training is too expensive (21%) or the type of training desired is not available locally (16%).

Mr Askew added: “The twin pressures of rapid technological change and Brexit make upskilling the current workforce more important than ever.

“Small firms clearly recognise the value of providing training for themselves and their staff, but it can be a struggle to find the time and money, and in some cases even to find the right training locally.

“The government should encourage more people to train by offering tax breaks to self-employed who attend training to develop new skills, not just to refresh existing skills.”

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