The challenges posed by the UK’s digital skills gap are well rehearsed but the gap also points to an opportunity. The UK’s tech sector continues to grow at almost three times the rate of the UK economy and as the economy digitises – every sector will become a digital sector, creating even more jobs.
At techUK we are committed to ensuring that the right conditions are laid so that everyone can benefit from these opportunities. This however will require a huge shift from policymakers at every level, from employers large and small and culturally amongst individuals. The day, through a mix of panel discussions and breakout workshops, examined how we prepare for this future and make that shift.
The Conference opened with two keynote speeches that set the scene. The Minister for Universities, Innovation, Science and Research laid out the opportunities for the UK if we can unlock the talent lying dormant and Scot Gardner, Chief Executive (UK&I) of Cisco followed by highlighting the variety of ways the world had changed since the world wide web burst on to the scene and how Cisco had adapted to these changes growing and investing in its workforce as it went.
These key notes teed up the first plenary of the day which through a panel discussion delved into how as a sector we could better tell our story. Chaired by our Deputy CEO Antony Walker and with perspectives offered from Scot Gardner, Liz Williams (Director of Digital Society, BT) and Anna Brailsford (CEO, Code First Girls), the panel teased out how as a sector we better make our proposition to society. It became abundantly clear through the discussion that not enough was being done to speak to parents and teachers about the opportunities and variety of careers available in the sector nor how young people could grasp them.
Delegates then chose from two different breakout sessions. The first exploring how we embed diversity into all we do and the second examining the opportunities and challenges posed by a future world of work that is more automated and digitised.
“You can’t be what you can’t see” was the message to take away from the embedding diversity in the pipeline breakout session. Each panelist highlighted that collaboration and multi stakeholder partnerships are key to creating inclusive environments where diverse talent can thrive. The panel saw the Tech Talent Charter, DCMS, and Cisco provide best practices that they have seen of companies creating an environment where people can bring their whole selves to work
The second breakout brought together representatives from industry, unions and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority to explore how – by working together, sentiment around automation could be shifted. All of the panellists agreed that technology had enormous potential to change people’s work and life for the better but only if it was embraced and individuals felt supported through a period of transition. With participation and experiences shared from the audience the session joined together a number of dots and I hope we see a few budding partnerships in the making.
After refuelling at lunch, the afternoon kicked off with the second plenary which sought to highlight the variety of new pathways into tech being created. Rachid Hourizi, Director of the Institute of Coding (IoC) talked delegates through new research from the IoC which revealed that more than 40 per cent of female respondents would move into the digital sector if they knew how to retrain. Helen Wollaston, CEO of the WISE campaign doubled down on this message that it was important to define clear pathways to empower people to make the leap. Meanwhile, Amanda Cooper from Thales looked at building the pipeline by bringing in fresh talent through the apprenticeship route – allowing employers to train talent on the job. The debate pinpointed a variety of routes into our sector but also highlighted the confusing landscape we were asking people to navigate. Clear pathways are absolutely crucial – something techUK truly believes in having launched a pathways tool earlier in the year.
The afternoon breakouts delved further into this issue. My colleague chaired the session exploring practical ways employers could remedy their skills gap by changing how they recruited and retained talent. Kerry Harrison provided a local perspective, using examples from her work in the Lancashire Digital Skills Partnership to highlight the initiatives that worked well in the region, and Samina Kiddier looked at what more could be done with the Department for Education’s communications engagement as industry is not aware of the different work Government is doing in this space. Engagement and collaboration between independent agencies and industry appeared to be key when working to close the skills gap, and it was clear that the audience agreed with this sentiment.
The final breakout session meanwhile looked at the National Retraining Scheme launched by Government which takes a place-based approached to reskilling. With insights offered from Tim Page, TUC and Jane Woods from BT it became clear that whilst the national skills gap required a scalable solution, much could be done in individual businesses and at a local level to make progress. We could have talked for hours around this issue but unfortunately had to wrap up sharpish to let the networking commence.
The day brought together a mixed and varied audience to discuss some key issues with debate and conversation spilling over into the fringes. New connections were forged and ideas hatched. For techUK’s part we were proud to convene such an interesting and committed group of people and proud further still that of our 23 speakers, 17 were female – which seemed particularly fitting as we celebrated Ada Lovelace and her achievements.
We are already looking forward to next year’s Conference along the same theme and would be delighted to receive feedback from all those there or who were following along on Twitter.
Huge thanks to all our attendees and special thanks to sponsors Cisco, BT, Visa Europe, and FDM.