The digital skills challenge – do you have the answer?

It was great to see one of our largest turnouts ever for the first Digital Leaders North West Salon of 2016. And of course it’s the topic that drew people in – the digital skills gap and what we’re doing about it – a critical subject for the North West, and indeed other regions around the country. Liz Copeland of Knowledge Hub tells us more about the discussion.

Julie Ollerton, MD of recruitment company Creative Resource, first gave us an overview of the challenges her clients face on a day to day basis. All staff need to be engaged in digital these days and it’s the job of Julie and her team to figure out how to figure that out. Julie posed a series of questions as she set out the challenges as she sees them:

  • Salaries – digital skills demand higher salaries and this puts a lot of pressure on companies. In turn, jobs go unfilled and this creates stress for existing employees and projects just don’t happen.
  • Lack of software development – many companies have now stopped developing software in this country due to their inability to recruit, but this means there’s now a question: is it actually work training software engineers anymore?
  • Reaching out to graduates – why aren’t we encouraging talented, numerate, science graduates into the digital sector? Computer science graduates see the highest levels of unemployment.
  • Re-training – why can’t 30-50 year olds learn to code? We should be seeking out those in organisations who have an appetite for learning, are adaptable and can pick up new skills quickly. Julie has seen some success recently re-training mac operatives to code CSS and HTML. This has a great knock on effect on the business, as they’re able to take on more digital business as a result.
  • Flexible working options – we need to consider ways of keeping more female staff in the industry.
  • Better careers advice in schools – many of our young people are users and consumers of technology, but are not necessarily technical innovators. They need help to take responsibility for their career management and development and more opportunities to speak to companies about what they’re looking for.

Next we heard from Angela Harrington of Manchester City Council and Adele Reynolds from New Economy. They gave us great insight into the current economic and skills situation in Manchester and what they predict for the future. (Read through all their slides and figures in the Digital Leaders North West group library.)

  • The local digital sector has some really specific skills gaps at the moment: programmers, software developers, web designers and those with specialist technical skills such as Javascript, SQL and C.
  • A review of job vacancies advertised between February and April last year showed that programmer and developer roles came top of the list and the expectation is that it will be the same this year
  • It’s not just technical skills that are required. The region needs sales, management, leadership, and entrepreneurial skills combined with technical skills.
  • The local economy will grow by over 100,000 jobs in the next few years. Growth sectors include: digital and creative, construction, science based roles (STEM) and financial services.
  • Schools are responsible for their own careers guidance, but this means it’s inconsistent. With the digital sector changing so rapidly all the time, young people need to be offered work placements that are relevant. It’s clear that the curriculum needs to adapt to industry and better links need to be made in the advice given to young people about how they can use their skills in digital and technology.
  • Skills and unemployment support are not integrated enough. We need to move to a position where employers are much more involved in co-designing skills development and schools are better linked with business.
  • There will be a stronger focus on digital skills as part of the skills agenda more widely. At the moment, in a push to become more digital themselves, companies are requiring online applications – even when no digital skills are needed for the job, which immediately creates a barrier for those without digital access or skills.

It seemed clear as we entered our discussion that there were two problems:

  1. What do we do about the immediate need of the current skills gap? We need programmers, developers etc. now.
  2. What do we do about our future skills gaps in this area? How do we inspire young people into these careers?

There were lots of great examples and ideas to answer the second question:

  • There was some discussion around the effectiveness of skills and careers shows. In fact it was seen as more useful for businesses to work directly with young people. There has already been some success with code clubs in Manchester where volunteers from digital businesses get involved in coding projects with young people.
  • Parental influence in career choice is an issue – often people don’t understand what a more technical job might entail and it is not necessarily seen as a ‘safe’ option, so there is work to do on educating parents about particular roles and why they are important too. If parents in a family are digitally excluded this can end up digitally excluding the whole family. We need to break that cycle.
  • Other great initiatives mentioned that encourage young people with an interest in digital were ‘The Hive’ for 14-19 year olds, Coderdojo coding clubs and the Raspberry Pi Foundation Saturday School.
  • Our hosts Manchester Metropolitan University were held up as a great example of delivering the right skills into business – they have a lot of courses with industry placements and have recently started a degree apprenticeship programme in this area, which works extremely well.
  • There was some discussion about why young people tend to ‘switch off’ at 14 years old. There were a variety of reasons, but it was felt that a major issue was finding teachers with the right skills to teach digital and technical subjects. A new digital college had recently been built, but they have struggled finding suitably qualified teachers too, so they approached talented and inspirational people in business who were very good. However they were put off by Ofsted performance indicators and the constant hoops they felt they had to jump through. How can we get the balance right here?

We grappled more with the first question. We all recognised the immediacy of the problem, but it seemed that even between us all we didn’t have a satisfactory answer that would deal with the current skills gap. We knew what the issues were, but solving them seemed tricky:

  • Are we putting up false barriers when it comes to digital jobs? We’re expecting to recruit people with degrees and particular experience, but anyone with a willingness and capability to learn could perhaps be taught particular specialist skills quickly.
  • How do we market our ‘digital’ jobs? Is the term ‘digital’ part of the problem? It potentially puts some people off when they might have the ideal transferrable skills we would be looking for.
  • We need to look at areas of work that are less in demand and examine people’s transferrable skills – for example, web content editors should first and foremost be good writers and have a good level of English, the digital part of it can be taught.
  • There needs to be more agile thinking when it comes to continued professional development – individuals should be expecting to evolve and develop their skills through their careers. If you look at the kinds of skills we needed 5-10 years ago, things have changed at such a rapid pace and they will continue to change, so we all need to be ready to embrace that ourselves, be flexible and adapt.
  • It was suggested that all organisations might benefit from looking at the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), which provides a practical resource for people who manage or work in information systems related roles and provides a common language for skills in the digital world:

I think we all felt that while our discussion had been interesting and useful, we were concerned that we had not really reached any solid conclusions on what to do about the immediate skills crisis. This was reinforced by the challenge laid out before us as we concluded our meeting:

“If someone gave you a million pounds now to spend within the next six months on the digital skills gap, what would you do with it?”

I’m not sure we had any immediate answers to this, but it certainly made for a lively topic of conversation in the pub afterwards.

It’s a challenge I would lay before anyone reading this now – what would you do if you had that sort of money to spend on developing digital skills? Share your comments here and let’s continue the conversation.

Don’t forget you can also come along and continue the conversation in person. Our next Digital Leaders North West meeting will be on Thursday 25 February in Manchester where we’ll be asking the question, “Whose responsibility is our online security?” Find out more about February’s meeting and all future meetings and share your thoughts with other Digital Leaders North West members in our Knowledge Hub group. Plus don’t forget to vote in the poll about the topic you'd like to cover at April's meeting.

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