700,000 NZers at risk of being left behind as the digital economy roars ahead

New BNZ research shows soaring use of the internet through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while more than two-thirds of New Zealanders increased their digital skills over this time, concern is growing for the 700,000 people at risk of being left behind because they lack essential digital skills.

BNZ Chief Economist Paul Conway says the lack of digital skills for such a significant number of New Zealanders risks holding the country back from the promise of a more inclusive and sustainable economy.

He says, “COVID-19 strapped a rocket on digital adoption. We saw e-commerce boom as traditional retailers shifted operations online and people with the necessary skills opted to work from home.

“It’s extremely positive to see that most New Zealanders have got onboard.  95 per cent of New Zealanders now have access to the internet at home, 80 per cent of us have the skills we need to engage online, and 95 per cent of us think the internet brings more benefits than negative impacts. However, a significant proportion of New Zealanders are missing out on the benefits of the new digital economy.

“Digital technologies offer enormous potential to help us lift wellbeing and make our economy more productive, sustainable, and inclusive” says Conway.

Digital Divide

Conway says, “The most concerning aspects of this research is that New Zealanders with low digital skills are often already disadvantaged in our society.

“For example, around 30% of people with low levels of education or low incomes are found to lack essential digital skills. For New Zealanders living with a disability, this figure jumps to 42%.

“By not urgently addressing this digital divide, we face the threat of entrenched inequity as these people become less able to engage with society and the economy. This risk will only worsen as the digital transformation picks up pace with more of the economy, social services, and our lives in general shifting online,” says Conway.

Supporting the transition

Conway says that now is the time to step up and invest in digital skills.

“Addressing these issues was already important prior to COVID-19 but is paramount now and with no time to lose. Investing in digital skills improves life and work opportunities for everyone. To be digitally included is to be socially and economically included.

“Addressing this issue is going to take a team effort between Government, the private sector, and the not for profit sector,” says Conway.

Conway says BNZ’s report outlines the crucial importance of digital skills training for everyone, with people needing access to training that fits their needs: “Currently, much of this work falls to small community providers, but with a joined-up effort, such as the work being undertaken by the Digital Equity Coalition Aotearoa, this could be much more effective.”

Access to devices and the internet is a key area – providing lower cost options for people who are currently unable to afford them will help break down an economic barrier to digital inclusion.

The report also highlights how the Government can leverage its contact with vulnerable New Zealanders through the health and social development systems to help lift their digital capabilities and inclusion.

Conway: “This could work, for example, by training people who deliver front line Government services to offer advice on digital skills training to people who need it.”

Conway says the vast reach of the private sector means it too needs to be doing more to help lift the digital skills of New Zealanders. For example, employers have an opportunity to support their employees in developing their digital skills. The private sector can also use its strong market networks to reach more people, helping improve their customers’ skills along the way.

Conway says this is work BNZ is focused on.

“One of the alarming things for us was the fact that 1.3 million New Zealanders don’t know where to get help to stay safe online.

“BNZ is supporting New Zealanders to be safer online with its Scam Savvy Tools and has improved the way it supports its customers to transition to digital banking with digital education sessions and dedicated over-70 year old customer help team that supports older customers to bank online.

“We will also be carrying out this digital skills survey annually to help chart the course and track New Zealand’s progress on this crucial work,” he says.

The BNZ Digital Skills Report 2021 is available here.