Digital skills: the key to unlocking UK transport sector recovery?

Over the past two years, pressure on the UK's transport industry has been immense. Now, as organisations continue to navigate a range of post-pandemic challenges, digital skills are increasingly being placed at the heart of the sector's immediate economic recovery and its long-term growth plans.

Even before the pandemic, many transport companies had begun to turn to technology to streamline their processes. The role of data science, in particular, is becoming increasingly important and is helping forward-leaning organisations to reduce costs, optimise operations, refine demand forecasting and improve estimated delivery times.

Data analysts themselves are an essential part of the transport industry today. They use vast volumes of raw data to find unseen patterns, derive meaningful insights and help organisations make purposeful business decisions.

However, despite the fact that many businesses are taking steps to advance the digitalisation of their operations, a recent report suggests that as many as 46% of organisations feel that they are suffering from a shortage of digital skills among their workforce.

In February of this year [2022], a consultation was launched by the UK Government to specifically understand what is needed to help the transport industry plug its own skills gaps and promote careers within the sector. As part of its launch, Minister for Transport, Andrew Stephenson, called upon transport leaders to help 'supercharge' skills and build the industry's future workforce.

It's clear that the transformational shift in skills within organisations needs to be driven by agile leaders. So what can be done to support the sector, encourage people to turn to a career in transport and help reskill the sector's existing workforce?

Graduate Apprenticeships

Increasingly, universities are playing a key role in delivering the digital skills needed to meet the growing and evolving demands of the transport sector by working directly in partnership with organisations and businesses.

In particular, Graduate Apprenticeships (also known as Degree Apprenticeships in England and Wales) are helping to unlock further education opportunities that create degree-qualified employees who have key skills tailored to the needs of individual transport and logistics-focused businesses.

Graduate Apprenticeships allow learners at any stage of their careers to study for a degree-level qualification while working for a company. They combine the best of both worlds - apprentices can gain academic knowledge whilst at the same time developing real-world on-the-job experience, giving them the skills needed to help the transport sector bounce back and our economy grow.

Retaining and diversifying talent

Industries of all types are grappling with the impacts of the so-called 'great resignation'. This dramatic shift in the labour market was sparked during the pandemic as workers began to reassess their careers and job roles. Graduate Apprenticeships are a great way for transport businesses to show their commitment to employees, helping them to recruit and retain talented members of staff.

Underlining the significance of this issue, there were more than 57,000 vacancies across the transport and storage sector in March of this year according to the latest available figures from the Office for National Statistics.

Widening the pool of talent available to industry, Graduate Apprenticeships are also helping to boost diversity and inclusion. Women currently make up just 20% of the transport sector's workforce and addressing this is a key challenge of the UK Government's skills consultation.

By breaking down the barriers faced by women entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, Graduate Apprenticeships can support proactive transport companies to address gender balance within their organisational structures. This includes key digital skills like data science where women are often unrepresented.

Since Graduate Apprenticeships launched in Scotland in 2017, the proportion of female Graduate Apprentices studying STEM subjects has grown from 18.1% to 21.2%. During that same period, the proportion of women registering for a Graduate Apprenticeship has almost doubled, with women now accounting for more than one third of new recruits.

As the transport industry works towards its decarbonisation commitments by the middle of the century, having a more diverse, representative and inclusive workforce will only help to increase creative and collaborative productivity. To deliver net zero we need innovative and sustainable solutions.

Looking to the future

According to a recent Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, there are around 1.5 million people employed in the Transport and Storage industry today. As the sector continues to harness new technologies and approaches, the skills and training required by these employees will also evolve.

Heriot-Watt University is at the forefront of developing and delivering agile courses that can react to these new and emerging growth sectors. We're proud to be able to deliver a Graduate Apprenticeship programme that is not only helping to meet the growing demand for data science and digital skills within the transport sector but supporting the economy as it recovers from the pandemic.

As we look to the future, the urgent need for agile education ecosystems that work in partnership with employers has never been clearer. And, it is imperative that we understand future skills demands now.

That's why at Heriot-Watt University we are developing even more strategic industry partnerships vital to the success of the transport sector's economic post-pandemic recovery and long-term prosperity - equipping both students and businesses with the tools needed today, tomorrow and into the future.