‘People have to overcome huge barriers to live and work’: how digital upskilling opens doors

<span>At digital inclusions hubs all over the UK, people – often older adults – are learning online skills. Picture posed by models.</span><span>Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images</span>
At digital inclusions hubs all over the UK, people – often older adults – are learning online skills. Picture posed by models.Photograph: SolStock/Getty Images

At a digital inclusion hub in London, a group of older adults is learning skills such as creating an email account, using video calling, learning about online safety, and how to use online government, health and council services. This is a grassroots organisation that offers free digital skills support to the local community. “We’ve seen a big benefit for people,” says Georgina Foster, project coordinator at ClearCommunityWeb, which is running the sessions. “It encourages them to be more independent, helps build their confidence – not just in using their device but feeling good about themselves. So much is moving online … it can be quite isolating when you can’t do something.”

The latest Lloyds Consumer Digital Index found that 6.8 million people in the UK (13% of the population) have ultra-low digital skills. Two-thirds are over the age of 70 and almost three in five (59%) are on low incomes, earning up to £20,000 a year. On top of this skills gap, 1.5 million people don’t have access to a device, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop. ClearCommunityWeb is one of hundreds of registered Digital Inclusion Hubs working in partnership with Good Things Foundation, the digital inclusion charity, using its initiative Learn My Way, a free online platform offering bite-sized sessions. With support from Vodafone, Learn My Way is helping more than 70,000 people improve their digital literacy and skills every year.

Digital exclusion is being exacerbated by the cost of living crisis, according to Helen Milner, group chief executive of Good Things Foundation. “Millions of people are facing a perfect storm – with insufficient digital skills and confidence to navigate modern society, paired with no money to pay for internet access or a device. They have to overcome huge barriers to live and work.”

In pursuit of its objective to lift 4 million people and businesses out of digital exclusion by 2025, Vodafone has been a key partner for Good Things Foundation, and a variety of other initiatives. As well as backing Learn My Way, Vodafone’s Hi Digital platform is a free online course for older generations developed by the Vodafone Foundation and the charity Independent Age. The company also backs a digital inclusion project facilitated by the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, which has committed to providing more than 4,500 people with tablets, sim connectivity and training.

The digital divide isn’t solely the preserve of older people and lower income communities – there’s still work to be done encouraging small businesses to overcome obstacles to digital change. Despite the benefits of investing in technology – from finding cost savings and boosting productivity, to improving competitiveness and making the most of growth opportunities – research by Vodafone has found that 27% of SMEs haven’t taken steps to learn about new technology and 41% haven’t invested in digital tools. In fact, a recent survey found that small business owners in the UK could recover as much as three-and-a-half weeks of productive working time back if they embraced even basic technology. Small businesses are also missing out on major productivity savings due to the slow roll-out of standalone 5G, according to a new report.

To support entrepreneurs, Vodafone has set up the V-Hub platform, a free guidance service, with online resources, webinars, and a one-to-one support helpline. That’s in addition to its business.connected partnership with Enterprise Nation, which provides free training online to 800,000 SME owners looking to improve their digital skills and productivity.

It’s already making a difference among small businesses. Natacha Maillard is a modern calligrapher and hand lettering artist based in Dunfermline, Fife. She recently set up an online shop called Crafty Nib, which sells a range of creative products on top of her calligraphy and engraving services. She says the business.connected courses helped her create a digital strategy and reposition her business to better resonate with her audience. “When I decided to start this new venture, I soon realised that despite being confident in my creative skills, I had very limited knowledge in business and marketing,” she says. “Attending the webinars and doing the e-learning courses made me realise how ‘scattered’ my offering was … I now understand the importance of niching and focusing directly on my ideal client rather than an audience of everyone.”

Mandy Chowdhary, the founder of Goodness Goodies, an online shop selling “free-from” treats, has found the webinars on drawing up a business plan helpful. Plus, because the training sessions are short, they have been easy for her to fit into the day, and she’s enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other like-minded people. “I always thought you only developed a business plan if you were asking the bank for a loan. But I was wrong,” she says. “It’s amazing what can be covered in a 30-minute webinar and the fact they’re brief means I can fit them into my busy schedule. Attending networking events, meeting new people and hearing their stories and journeys has also been very inspirational.”

Building a similar community is something Ewan Buck, who runs the co-working space Contingent Works in Bromley, south-east London, has also benefited from. He discovered business.connected when he needed help with his marketing strategy. “Being a one-man band means you’re often too busy to stand back and take stock or look at areas of your business you need to address,” he says. The marketing modules “helped me get my plan off the ground and I ended up with more customers”. Making decisions can feel overwhelming at times but being part of the programme, “just feels like there’s someone there who has your back”.

Find out more about Vodafone’s pledge to help 4 million people and businesses cross the digital divide here