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Narrowing the digital skills gap for a future-proof Leeds

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With close to 60,000 higher education students and a host of colleges offering a vast array of further education courses, Leeds certainly does not struggle for a steady supply of skilled candidates to fill roles within the expanding portfolio of service industries it specialises in. That said, employers and education institutions alike are putting increasing emphasis on ensuring that graduates of all types are entering the job market with the right acumen in digital skills, regardless of the subject or course. We spoke to Jess Sewter, Head of Partnerships, Placements and Employment at Leeds Trinity University and Lola Wilson, Ahead Partnership’s Marketing and Business Development Coordinator, to find out what their organisations are currently undertaking to keep students up-to-date on typical requirements for the big wide world of work and, crucially, prevent Leeds-based employers from having to look elsewhere for their talent pool.

Digital inclusion Leeds Kirkgate Market

What’s your view on the digital skills gap?

Jess Sewter: Employability is embedded into everything we do at Leeds Trinity and we’re committed to making sure our students have the best chance at getting a job after university. We are the only university in the UK to embed two professional work placements with every undergraduate degree, and ranked top in Yorkshire for employability. So when we heard that there are over 800 unfilled tech vacancies at any one time and that Leeds tech employers were struggling to recruit, we wanted to do something about it and produce graduates with the right skills for the sector.

Lola Wilson: The skills gap in digital and tech is something that employers have a keen interest in addressing as demand for jobs in this sector is set to grow further by 15% by 2022. Young people have a clear interest in technology and so better promotion of opportunities within the sector is an obvious step to take. Those already working in the sector can play a big part in helping young people understand the skills and qualities needed to be successful in tech roles.

What initiatives are you involved in to address this?

JS: Leeds Trinity University is becoming well-known within the digital sector; we sit on the Leeds Digital Board, contributing to a digital skills plan for the area, and have also recently launched a new Computer Science degree for September 2018, designed in conjunction with industry partners including Sky, SkyBet, Ten10, Infinity Works and BJSS. Industry experts will be involved in the delivery and assessment and part of a steering group that reviews the degree annually to ensure it remains current with sector changes.

LW: We have a variety of programmes underway to help to address the digital skills gap in Yorkshire. These include projects sponsored by businesses such as the Assistive Living Technology Challenge with Premier Farnell. This saw sixth form students from across the region learning to use codebug technology to create a product or application that could improve the lives of those with long term health conditions. The prototypes were really innovative, inventive and well executed and the students had the chance to learn from academics and students at Leeds Beckett University and engage with a large number of technology SMEs who took part in judging the competitions. 92% said they were more aware of careers in digital as a result of the challenge.

JS: Leeds Trinity University is also one of 30 universities and colleges to be developing new and enhanced higher education courses through funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced in January. The University received £104,000 from HEFCE’s Catalyst Fund to co-develop and co-design the course modules in partnership with employers. We have digital employers coming in soon to start designing these courses.

LW: We’ve also developed a raft of free resources for schools and colleges to use in careers and Key Stage 5 Maths & IT lessons that show students what it’s really like to work in digital. The resources have been created with employers and include videos from Sky, NHS Digital and IBM to name a few. We’ve just started to roll the resources out and they’ve proven extremely popular with teachers and students so far.

digital inclusion Leeds

How do you hope this will help, and who is set to benefit?

JS: It will provide a recruitment pipeline for graduates for tech organisations in Leeds, and help to enhance graduate outcomes and employability. It will also up-skill the workforce, providing key abilities that industry and employers will need, contributing to long-term productivity in Leeds and the UK. It’s also important to note that students don’t have to come from a computing background to get into the tech sector. Universities need to do their bit for the business community and help drive the economy forward.

What do you think makes Leeds a great place to be a young person on the brink of starting work? Are there any potential pitfalls at present?

LW: Leeds offers so much opportunity for young people. We have a fantastic mix of large and smaller employers and it’s a world-leading tech hub. Mapping in 2015 found that businesses employ around 70,000 people in digital in our region and are operating across a diverse range of areas including IT, data, hardware, health and social care, WiFi and connectivity, financial technology, the internet of things and gaming. Leeds is unique in being able to offer so much to so many young people not only for career growth but also quality of life. Why would they need to go anywhere else?

In terms of pitfalls, reaching young people with honest and balanced information about future careers options at the right point in time is critical. Employers have a vital role to play here as they are the ones most able to predict their future workforce requirements and deliver the most up to the minute information. The good news is that there is a great deal of opportunity within this sector right here on their doorstep but employers do need to take every opportunity to get out there and talk about it.

What could happen in future regarding the digital skills gap?

JS: More expense sent on recruitment and Leeds employers looking further outside the UK for people with the right skills; students from Leeds Universities graduating without the right skills or knowledge of working practices for the digital sector. Worst case scenario would be digital businesses going elsewhere to set up…

What role do education institutions have in addressing this?

JS: I believe Universities have a responsibility to listen and respond to sector needs by designing and developing courses that produce graduates with the right knowledge and skills that employers want. They also need to make sure these courses keep up with the fast changing digital sector - so for a successful degree course, flexibility and continuous collaboration with employers is key! Employment prospects do form a key part of degree choice and students are looking for great subjects to study that also lead to graduate employment so it is up to Universities to be clear on digital sector’s roles, and work in partnership to help get these vacancies filled.

LW: We’ve been delighted with the early success of our digital education programmes which have already reached thousands of young people. We’re in the position to turn this into a full year-round programme of targeted activity but to achieve this we need more tech companies to lend their resource and sponsor activities. Employers have a real collective interest in doing this and they’ll achieve far more together than individually.

Digital inclusion Leeds Briggate

Lastly, how can Leeds as a whole lead the way?

JS: The key is working collaboratively and joining up the dots, from schools right through to employers. Leeds is already doing some great work in raising awareness of digital skills and opportunities; Ahead Partnership is working in schools on this and highlighting all the different pathways into the sector; Herd Careers put on a fantastic Digital Fair each year and the digital festival itself is really putting Leeds on the digital map! Many of Leeds tech employers are welcoming candidates from all backgrounds so we need to shout out the message that you don’t need a background in computing to get into the tech sector. By working together we can start creating our own pipeline of talent for digital. The support we’ve had from our partners in the digital sector has been fantastic and we’re delighted to be working in collaboration with some of the region’s top digital companies to further enhance our student offer, and contribute to filling the skills gap in Leeds.

 

What is certain is that as a city, Leeds will continue to forge ahead as a regional - indeed, national - hub for digital industries. Not only that, but it is seemingly perfectly placed to benefit from a steady stream of graduate talent from its own further and higher education institutions as well as those from around the North. However, those who are keeping one eye to the rear and ensuring that baseline digital skills in students of all pursuits are up to scratch should be commended; whether a graduate in web development or somebody enrolled on a healthcare related course, the floor for digital skills expectations will only continue to rise. It is perhaps to the likes of Ahead Partnership and Leeds Trinity University's initiatives that we should give credit for the standards Leeds is setting for itself, as much as any cutting edge integrated brand agency at the forefront of the city's digital progress.

 

*Article originally produced for Leeds Digital Festival

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