“Skills maintenance in a rapidly changing technological world is challenging to keep up with,” wrote Doug Harward and Ken Taylor of Training Industry at the end of 2017. “Just as employees are mastering a new technology, a new version comes out with added capabilities and features.” Every day, it seems the digital skills gap is mentioned, bemoaned or diagnosed in an article (or two, or five). Let’s take a look at the state of the gap in 2018.

“The market for digital skills in the U.S. is very, very large, and growing quickly,” says Niall McKinney, president of edtech company AVADO, which recently expanded its digital transformation and leadership training platform into the U.S. market. And the key to digital transformation, writes David Brown, CEO of Hays US, is “people, not technology.” That’s where L&D comes in.

What Skills Are Needed?

“All companies are becoming tech companies,” says Jake Schwartz, co-founder and CEO of General Assembly, “as competition to compete in the digital marketplace continues. As a result, we’re rapidly shifting toward an economy in which every employee needs a variety of modern skills. For everyone from entry-level hires to the C-suite, being tech- and data-literate is an integral part of the job description.” General Assembly was recently acquired by the Adecco Group as a result, Schwartz says, of its “need to connect in a deeper way with the world of human capital.”

Yes, automation “eliminates traditional pathways to success,” says Schwartz, but “the technology enabling automation is creating entirely new career opportunities.” For example, data science as a career field is new in the last decade or so. In fact, Schwartz adds, “General Assembly and its data science standard board have identified machine learning, data engineering, quantitative research and advanced analytics as key specializations for organizations to understand and train capabilities around in order to fully leverage the potential of data science.”

Developing employees’ skills in areas like software engineering, digital marketing, user experience and user interface (UX/UI), and data science not only ensures that organizations have those critical skills but also provides “continuous pathways of opportunity for people to advance their careers,” says Schwartz. For example, General Assembly is working with Cognizant, a technology and business services company, on web and software development training initiatives that both prepare learners for new technical roles but also help Cognizant stay competitive.

The digital skills gap goes beyond technical skills, however, and includes business, marketing and leadership skills specific to a digital world. For example, AVADO offers a digital marketing leadership course developed with Google to teach learners “how to deliver marketing and business in a digital world.” Similarly, AVADO partners with GSK to train their marketers in multi-channel marketing in light of changing regulations and technologies and works with Phillip Morris on how to market and sell new reduced-risk products.

Learning leaders, says McKinney, “need to be thinking about creating T-shaped talent. So, yes, you do need to hire some specialists … but you also need to train the rest of your organization to understand digital culture, digital working culture, to also understand the digital skills that are important to the future of your organization.”

How to Develop Employees’ Digital Skills

Traditional training is insufficient for the demand organizations are seeing and will continue to see for digital talent, Schwartz says. “HR and L&D will need to get creative in how they source talent and re-design workforce training models to ensure their employees stay up-to-date on the latest digital skills.” Hands-on skills training is the way to implement that training, he believes, and benchmark assessments can help organizations evaluate learning. McKinney agrees: “It’s got to be actionable and practical,” he says. If your digital skills training is too theoretical, “it goes in one ear and out the other, and you’re kind of wasting your time.”

AVADO’s core learning offering is its online training, but it also offers face-to-face leadership training, mentoring, social learning and self-paced, bite-sized learning. “We’re trying to create a learning model,” McKinney says, “where people are absolutely taking things in, they’re learning how to use them, and they’re displaying that they know how to use them – but still through that online campus that allows [for] scalability and universal access.”

Apprenticeships are also a viable option for developing technical skills, according to Chris Magyar, director of Techtonic Academy at Techtonic Group, LLC. The company recently received $2 million in its first round of funding for its outsourced apprenticeship program, which works with tech companies to recruit and train entry-level software developers “from different backgrounds,” such as underrepresented groups (i.e., women, people of color and veterans) as well as industries such as retail, construction and food service. Magyar echoes Schwartz’s belief that closing the digital skills gap doesn’t just ensure that organizations can innovate in their products and services but also that they can retain their talent: “If you don’t provide training to your technologist,” he says, “they are going to move to a company that is providing constant and ongoing technical training.”

McKinney says the first step, before training, is to conduct a digital skills audit to determine where your employees are and where they need to be. Then, throughout the training process, use data “as a feedback loop” to understand what content and modalities are most effective and which need to be improved or eliminated.

Organizations can also use data to identify struggling learners, McKinney says, and AVADO is piloting a machine learning application that uses five data points to “predict to a 91 percent accuracy” which learners may drop out – so the organizations can then put interventions in place to make sure they don’t.

“Economic success requires digital innovators, not digital cogs,” wrote Ian Palmer, dean of Pearson College London’s Escape Studios, in 2015. Three years later, this statement is still true. While colleges, universities and recruiting firms all have a role to play in closing the digital skills gap, L&D plays perhaps the most critical part of all in upskilling its workforce. Whether it’s through online or in-person training, apprenticeships, or other formats, make sure your organization is developing digital innovators. Its success now and in the future depends on it.