Tackling the Emerging Digital Skills Gap in the West Midlands

Written by Ryan Ashley, Content Executive, SCC

On March 7th, business leaders from across the West Midlands joined key figures in education at Birmingham’s iCentrum to discuss the emerging digital skills gap and the growing importance of digital apprenticeships.

In response to the growing difficulty businesses are facing when hiring and retaining top talent within the region, this session aimed to bridge the gap between academia and business. The intended outcome was to start a dialogue which ensures a vibrant pipeline of digital talent that can support the growth of start-ups and SME’s within the West Midlands.

With key speakers Andrew Cleaves, CEO and Principal at Birmingham Metropolitan College and Jennifer Ingram, Organisational Development Manager at SCC, the group consisted of those best placed to address key industry concerns, such as:

  • How to attract and retain talent;
  • Available funding;
  • The new apprentice levy;
  • Practical examples of local success.

The session was called in response to the recent Tech Nation 2016: Transforming UK Industries Report, which sheds some light on the current state of the digital economy in the UK. The report lists some of the largest and fastest growing digital cities in the UK, highlighting the importance of digital skills in the emerging business landscape.

Some key highlights include:

  • Advertised salaries are 36% higher for digital roles than the national average;
  • Digital tech industries have grown 32% faster than the rest of the economy, reaching an annual turnover of £161bn;
  • Digital tech job growth increased 2.8x faster than the rest of the economy;
  • 75% of digital tech businesses are outside London;
  • 15% increase in digital employment between 2011 and 2014;
  • 20% of digital tech businesses say that EU countries are an important source of talent.

Despite this, Birmingham hasn’t stood out as a region focused on digital growth, with figures showing:

  • Only 60% of tech businesses have access to graduate-level talent;
  • 22% of digital tech businesses see Birmingham as having a weak economic climate;
  • 39% of businesses report limited access to finance is another blocker.

One recurring concern voiced by those present was how SME’s can compete with big corporates, when many young professionals are attracted to digital giants such as Apple; IBM and Google.

One attendee cited their success in offering a clear career pathway, in order to provide a good alternative to university, while others shared their positive experiences in offering above the minimum wage for various digital roles.

Many of the business leaders present wanted to share their insight around the challenges of attracting new digital talent. The success stories that stood out in this area included:

  • Developing a dedicated web page within their careers website to promote apprenticeships;
  • Using social media to raise awareness of available, or upcoming opportunities;
  • Creating marketing collateral such as brochures to provide more information to potential candidates;
  • Attending regional careers fairs at universities and colleges.

Many were eager to find a way to work more closely with academic institutes in order to influence the kind of learning on offer, to ensure it is more relevant to changing business needs. The key challenge people faced in this respect seemed to be the complex policy surrounding ways in which education communicates with businesses, making this session invaluable in creating a dialogue between the two.

The apprenticeships levy was also discussed, with mixed opinions. While some see it as a tax, others viewed it as an investment. It was emphasised that, although larger businesses will be charged the levy and in turn, be able to provide apprenticeships, the Government will fund 90% of apprenticeship provision for SME’s. This was seen as a great opportunity for smaller, to medium-sized businesses to leverage the opportunity to bring in new digital talent.

Those that shared their experiences of integrating apprenticeships within their business, cited that one of the key drivers was that apprenticeships seem to possess a greater work ethic on the whole when compared with peers who are employed by alternative means. The idea seemed to be that, by circumventing full-time education, apprentices showcased a greater willingness for ‘hands on’ contribution to the business.

Looking ahead, the consensus was that apprenticeships are going to play a much larger role in the economy, as future education becomes much more closely aligned with ever-changing business requirements.

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