Digital talent and the skills match – it’s a game of two halves

The conversation at this month’s Digital Leaders North West (DLNW) Salon in Manchester was, as ever, very stimulating. Our topic this month presented a challenge: digital talent – the match-up between our creative digital people and the skills our businesses need. Knowledge Hub's Liz Copeland, and DLNW Steering Group member, provides an interesting and informative write up...

Developing partnerships – education and business working together

Our first speaker Dr. Darren Dancey, of Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) told us about two initiatives the university is involved in to develop and encourage digital talent.

The first is Digital Labs. The truth is that for many companies a graduate – no matter how creative and skilled they are – needs to have experience before the business will employ them. But, how do graduates get that experience if no one is prepared to take a chance on them? It’s a chicken and egg scenario.

Digital Labs is trying to address this. It’s a small development team with experienced developers that includes students on 6-month internships. The students have the opportunity to develop their skills within a commercial environment and learn from other developers. Likewise, the experienced developers can learn from the students too and keep their knowledge up to date.

The second initiative is the degree level Apprenticeship. Created in partnership with employers the Apprenticeship is a full degree equivalent taken over four years that combines work with a local company along with learning, bringing the academic and work environments together. MMU’s Apprenticeship starts with its first cohort in September 2015 and will take around 40-60 students.

The aim of both of these initiatives is to make sure students emerge from their university studies work-ready.

Becoming a better employer

Our second speaker, Ian Mountford, of 6Talent had three key points to make:

  1. We need to support the first steps into the world of work better by helping people gain better basic and soft skills, and providing better careers advice.
  2. What kind of work environment are we offering? Is it a place that employees want to be? People’s expectations are a lot higher than they ever used to be, so we need to consider what kind of workplace and what kind of culture we’re selling to them.
  3. How do we help our organisations ‘become magnets’? How are we attracting people and how do we build employer brand? Winning the war for talent is all about understanding what you want and understanding what your ideal candidate wants too.

Following Darren and Ian’s input, the conversation was broad ranging, but I hope I’ve managed to encapsulate the essence of it here.

Big business vs. SMEs

It’s great to hear that universities like MMU and local employers are working together on programmes to develop digital talent in the region. Companies are really keen to be involved as they know they will end up with well trained talent, and students are attracted by the opportunity to work and gain experience alongside their studies.

However, there is a difference in the extent to which smaller companies can be involved. MMU has worked hard to include SMEs in their Apprenticeship programme, but the truth is that smaller companies are often not set up to handle the management of structured programmes like this. Larger companies are able to put in the resources to support the programme, where as some smaller businesses just don’t have the capacity to provide the right learning environment. This seems to penalise both the companies themselves, who may miss out on key digital talent, and the students, who would like to gain experience in SMEs.

Skills gap vs. skills match

The question was raised about skills gaps – what kind of data do we have on them and what kind of a picture can we get about where the needs are and whether our graduates are able to fill those needs? Anecdotally it seems that there is sometimes a mismatch between what graduates can offer and what companies are looking for, however, this is often less on the technical side and more related to softer skills and understanding the commercial environment.

The gender gap in digital work is still seen as a major problem, because companies are potentially missing out on a huge untapped pool of talent. While on the recruitment agency side the gender balance does gradually seem to be shifting and things do appear to be changing, the university still finds it difficult to interest young women in computing courses and more needs to be done to promote interesting and creative digital careers to girls in schools. A key element of this is having more female role models, which is why it’s great that the new Socitm (IT professional body) president, Nadira Hussain, is keen, as part of her presidency, to advance the role of women in IT and digital.

Members of the group felt strongly that more work in schools is needed, including more opportunities for children to understand the possibilities of a career in the digital sphere. While they recognised the good work of code camps and such like, it was generally accepted that digital education in schools faces a challenge.

Equally, there was discussion about the lack of decent careers advice in this area and how those providing the advice can often have out of date knowledge, because of the fast moving nature of the work. Even parents, who can have huge influence on the career direction taken by their children, can end up promoting out of date technologies as a suitable career path. Our succession planning for the digital careers of the future has to start early and needs to focus not solely on technical skills, but also on the exciting possibilities of a career in digital technology.

More generally it seems that perhaps one key skills gap is that of ‘selling yourself’. Many young graduates still come out of university unable to demonstrate the value of the work they’ve already done.

My CV vs. my capacity to learn

At the end of the day though, is how we do recruitment actually all wrong anyway? As employers are we so focused on specific skill sets we think we need that we forget about the individual? How much importance do we place on a person’s ability to pick up a new skill set, rather than experience they already have?

CVs and applications are usually geared to show your experience and demonstrate what you’ve already learnt, but how do we give talented and creative individuals the opportunity to show that they’re passionate, proactive learners with the ability to pick up new skills quickly?

After all, the digital world moves on so quickly. It’s likely that what a lot of employers are asking graduates to do is maintain systems using old code anyway. Is the skills gap in fact the opposite way round and are we holding our digital talent back because of our creaking legacy systems and our own inability to embrace change and new ways of working? It’s quite a challenge!

Attraction vs. repulsion

So, the question remained how do employers become the employer of choice for the best digital talent that is coming out of our universities and colleges? And is this where perhaps the SME has the opportunity to shine?

It was at this point that a talented young digital graduate joined the meeting. What a great opportunity for the rest of us in the room to ask him – what’s important to him in an employer? He is just finishing his finals at MMU and has already had a job with a larger company during his course. However, he felt truly uninspired by the role, where he felt like a cog in a wheel and his ideas were not taken seriously. So, he’s recently started a new job with a small company of about 15 people where he already feels at home. And he’s not there for big bucks – it’s cultural fit that’s far more important to him. So, as a point to leave you with, I’m going to tell you his top tips for attracting creative and innovative digital talent to your organisation…

A grad’s top tips for employers

  • Listen to me – I’m willing to accept that my ideas won’t always be taken on board, but at least listen to them. Some of them might be good!
  • I’m a name and not a number – I don’t want to be just another employee, I want to be me – an individual.
  • Take me seriously – let me show you what I can do!
  • I want to know that you understand when I have a problem with something – I have a lot of respect for someone who can do the job I’m doing.
  • Money is not as important to me as working on interesting, challenging projects that stretch me and help me learn.
  • I like flexibility – working from home sometimes is great and it shows that you trust me. I won’t abuse it.
  • Treat me like a human being – his company buys lunch for everyone once a week.
  • Give me autonomy over my own projects – I can handle the responsibility. (He has already re-written the internal billing system at his new company in the short time that he’s been there.)

If you’d like to get involved with Digital Leaders North West, our next face to face meeting is on Thursday 18 June, 4-6pm (with drinks afterwards) at The Shed, Manchester Metropolitan University. We’ll be talking more about ‘The Ideal Office’ – what kind of digital tools are there out there to make our workplaces function better digitally, how do we dump some of those legacy systems and ultimately make ourselves more attractive to creative talent like our young grad? And in the meantime, if you’d like to get involved in the conversation – join the DLNW group on the Knowledge Hub.


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