Digital and its Role in Skillset Development

Written by Steve Blanks, Head of Operations at Escher Group (UK)

April’s Digital Leaders North East salon took place in Teesside.

Teesside has suffered a higher than national average rate of unemployment in the last few years, mainly due to the decline of traditional skills such as those applied to the steel and chemical sectors. In many cases this has meant that individual digital literacy levels of workers, who have lost their jobs, has been very poor, resulting in diminished opportunities for re-employment or upskilling.

Teesside’s salon featured 3 discussants from a variety of sectors, each of whom provided an insightful perspective of the challenges and potential solutions in the evolving landscape of digital skills development.

Our first discussant was Tom Metcalfe, Project Supervisor from Middlesbrough College. Tom kicked off by talking about the colleges approach to developing digital skills. Currently, the college employs a mixture of work based and vocational learning. The college proactively conducts research and consults industry to ensure that graduating students posses the right skills for employment. Consultation with industry includes talking with large groups of businesses to help determine relevant course and learning material for students. Running in parallel with this is a growing appetite from industry that students must also posses some experience in order to be employable.

Tom raised the question to the salon attendees:

How do we future proof the skills and attitudes of students going into the digital sector?

A number of attendees reacted by stating that teaching specific skills is not the solution. Teaching students to focus solely on a very specific technology often impacts on their ability to learn other skillsets needed to address challenges when they get into employment. A suggestion was made that students need to be taught to develop transferrable skills such as analytical and problem solving skills, that imbed a positive attitude to continued learning. A lot of the discussants reflected that their best success stories were with students who were willing to take on an unfamiliar problem, ask questions and tackle it.

We also need to enthuse young people about the wide range of digital and technology opportunities. We need to give them the fundamental understanding that this is a career that is rewarding and expanding into all kinds of sectors. This view of a world of endless possibilities should be embedded into each generation so that we produce graduates that continue to learn and explore throughout their career. To this effect, we need students to understand that sometimes, formalised education only takes you two years down the line, beyond that, learning should be a continual process. Preparing students for this journey is more likely to create highly employable young people who excel in industry.

Our next discussant featured Kelly Britton, Careers & Skills Officer at Tees Valley Unlimited (Local Enterprise Partnership for Teesside). Tees Valley Unlimited has been instrumental in supporting the region’s growing start-up culture and the development of skills education. As part of this process, the LEP has undertaken research to understand some of the key challenges, barriers, trends and tendencies to ensure that the region has the necessary skillsets within sectors such as digital and creative to compete on a global scale. The LEP has also helped to bring education and industry closer together, with the hope of further accelerate skills development within the region.

The question Kelly posed was:

We know there is a skills gap, but how do we engage with education and employers to make this happen?

A starting point of the discussion addressed what do we mean by Digital?. Digital means different things to different people. However everyone agreed that in modern life, digital is pervasive and cuts across everything in our working and personal life.

Some attendees mentioned that we need to change the perception of what digital means to businesses and employers. The tendency is for new employees to train with a company and move on, rather than retain long-term loyalty. While this is perceived as negative, employers need to start understanding that there is a large pool of employees who were trained in similar companies to theirs.

Lastly, careers advisors are not always up to speed with regional employment trends and employer requirements. In order to improve the education of students, even adult learners, of the career and job opportunities within the region, advisors should be encouraged to build closer relationships with local employers and understand their ongoing and more importantly future needs. This will help to bridge the skills gap and ensure course content is relevant to industry.

Our final discussant was James Lane, Director of Training at RAW Digital. James explored the topic from the point of view of a training deliverer. James’ thoughts reflected the train of thought throughout the evening. Underlying soft transferrable skills need to be taught, rather than a sole focus on software skills. This will create employees who can adapt their skills to different challenges and environments.

The discussion circled back to the idea of interchangeable skills. Rather than teaching a specific set of steps, (be it college, university, training) education should provide an insight into the sustainable skills that industry will always require regardless of changes in technology (ie: project management, presentation, time management).

In the end, the final thoughts in the room were:

  • Teach underlying and transferrable skills, rather than just specific skills such as software
  • Focus on the regional skills and needs from industry
  • Build closer collaboration between education institutions and industry to align skills
  • Empower people to seek out training or ask the questions when needed
  • Encourage a positive attitude towards working life
  • Map digital and define it in order to move forward with teaching digital

Overall, the attitude in the room was that of – build it and they will come. The region’s landscape has changed significantly, today’s industries are different to those of the past. Digital is a high growth economy and the fastest growing industry in places such as Gateshead. The region needs to shout about its digital industries but ensure that skills are always aligned to industry requirements. Middlesbrough College has already made the first step by inviting the Digital Leaders network to participate in a formal advisory board, to explore how education can more closely follow the trends of industry.


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