New report highlights impact of digital exclusion on North East people

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A new report published by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership has shown how the pandemic has worsened people’s ability to access education, skills and employment.

Commissioned by the North East LEP’s Skills Advisory Panel (SAP), the Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area report looks specifically at the economic and skills-related impacts of digital exclusion in County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

And it reveals a huge digital skills gap, showing how the North East has higher levels of people who have never gone online than the national average, plus lower levels of people who improved their digital skills during the Covid pandemic.

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Almost half of those in the region not using the internet cited cost as the reason, highlighting the issue of lack of connectivity for children in disadvantaged areas that came to the fore at the start of the pandemic.

The LEP’s report says that lack of access to the internet can hold people back as they are often unable to access job applications, training schemes and interviews from mobile phones.

The lack of access to computers has been exacerbated by the closure of libraries, the report adds.

More than 90% of businesses in the North East say digital skills are needed for their work and 82% of online vacancies require digital skills of some sort.

But almost a quarter of firms in the region say their employees are lacking basic skills and an ever higher proportion (28%) say they have a digital skills gap in their workforces.

The report details eight recommendations to tackle the problem, including improving connectivity for people in disadvantaged and rural areas, and providing short courses in community centres.

Michelle Rainbow, skills director at the LEP, said: “Whilst we know digital exclusion is a problem in the North East, the coronavirus pandemic has really exacerbated the issue and highlighted why we must address it now.

“This report has allowed us to see the scale of the problem for the first time, and how Covid-19 has extended the gap that already existed in our region.

“If we truly want to level up the country and provide opportunities for all, we must address the issue of digital exclusion, and we must do it in partnership with businesses, education, the voluntary sector, and the public sector.”

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The LEP estimates that there are 176,000 adults in the North East who have never used the internet plus another 61,000 who count as ‘lapsed’ users (people who haven’t used the internet at all in the last three months).

Carol Botten, CEO of Voluntary Organisations Network North East and member of the North East LEP Skills Advisory Panel, said: “Some of the recommendations in our report can be delivered regionally, but others will need the support of Government and other stakeholders.

“We need to address the problem of access to digital devices, and how connectivity can be an additional barrier to people using digital services. We also need to prioritise education in digital skills from an early age, and ensure it becomes part of the curriculum in further and higher education.”

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Graeme WhitfieldRegional business editor