Promotion digital skills growth in the West Midlands

Written by James Genner from SCC

Business leaders, academics and creatives across the West Midlands met on September 27that iCentrum in Birmingham to discuss the promotion of digital skills across the region.

The group were chosen based on their ability to address three focus areas:

  • The various programme initiatives educators and skills providers are implementing to meet the digital skills shortage
  • The challenges of hiring and retaining top talent in the West Midlands
  • How academia and business are trying to join up the dots to ensure there is a vibrant pipeline of digital talent supporting start-ups and SMEs based in the region

The Challenge

The meeting was a response to the Tech Nation 2016: Transforming UK Industries Report. The report gives an upbeat view on the digital economy in the UK, providing some nationwide statistics and naming the largest and fastest growing digital cities in the UK. It demonstrates the importance of digital skills in the future economy.

  • Digital tech turnover increased 32% faster than the rest of the economy (2010–2014). It is now at £161bn.
  • Digital tech job growth increased 2.8 times faster than the rest of the economy
  • 75% of digital tech businesses are outside London
  • 15% increase in digital employment (2011–2014)
  • 20% of digital tech businesses say that EU countries are an important source of talent

However, Birmingham wasn’t shown as a region focussed on digital growth.

  • Total Digital Turnover in Birmingham is £1.8bn
  • Notable companies were ASOS, HSBC and Virgin Media
  • Limited access to finance — 39%
  • Low sector awareness — 28%
  • Weak economic climate — 22%

The Discussion

As the second largest city in the UK, the view was that Birmingham should be a major centre for digital talent in country. In 2014, Birmingham was the fifth largest digital economy in the UK with a total turnover of £1.8bn, and housed 36,768 digital jobs, the fourth largest digital jobs hub.

A concern for some of the delegates was that Birmingham no longer made the list of top five cities for turnover growth or productivity (sales per worker). This reinforced views that there is a risk of Birmingham not being seen as a centre for digital talent in the future, unless changes are made for developing new talent. A strong view was that not enough was being done to provide a pipe-line to Birmingham based businesses, especially those who fall in the SME category.

Large organisations such as Microsoft, IBM and the BBC have been developing their own training programmes, upskilling young people with raw skills. This is a clear benefit to the overall market, but there is a risk that the skills being taught are in the organisation’s self-interest and they are not providing a wider platform of transferable skills. This concern results in a large amount of responsibility falling on schools, universities and the government.

A challenge for educators is the ability to show young people how to transfer their digital skills to the workplace, and what careers come under the digital umbrella. Misconceptions have resulted in digital creative roles not being considered as digital as traditional programming roles, driving young people away from them.

In other European countries, computer science courses include modules on broader skills, such as psychology. Local education establishments are looking at building on this concept to create digital courses that teach a wider range of transferable skills. This would help create new talent that had digital skills, general work skills and the creativity needed to be the next centre of digital.

What was concluded

The majority of under 16s have a basic digital understanding, from being brought up around technology and digital concepts. The known problem is transferring these skills to the workplace.

There appears to be a lack of communication to school leavers on how they can develop these skills further, and how they can translate them into the workplace. Careers advice needed to improve so it could provide a more realistic view of what is available to young people, but that would only happen if it received support from the local digital community.

There are signs that initiatives are starting to take place in primary and secondary schools, however these are still early initiatives and it will be a few years until they can fill the skills gap we’re facing.

Some companies are starting their own initiatives to tackle this issue, but more action needs to be taken in Birmingham to synchronise the needs of our digital businesses with our local schools and universities.

Originally published at on October 10, 2016.

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