How can the north-west fix the digital skills gap?

fix the digital skills gap
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Matt Adam, chief executive of We Are Digital, explains how the north-west is working to fix the digital skills gap

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the true width of the digital skills gap faced by UK employers. As the workplace becomes increasingly digitised, filling this hole is becoming a critical priority – creating an expected pain point for more than two-thirds of firms

The pandemic has changed the workplace, possibly forever, and finding a job offline has proven a challenge for many.  For younger job seekers, the UK’s employment opportunities are narrowing. The Kickstart Scheme, for example, which provides funding to employers to create job placements for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit, has seen some employers reluctant to start placements due to the continuing disruption of lockdown.

The UK’s jobs market did show signs of improvement in January, yielding the first drop in unemployment since the pandemic started. Despite the negative statistics, there is an upshot. Indeed, the pandemic has proven a huge catalyst for social change, with offices nationwide moving into new, virtual ways of working. The pandemic has exposed the extent of the digital skills gap faced by UK employers, and thus created a range of employment opportunities that simply didn’t exist before.

Indeed, digital and tech roles have been unaffected by recruitment slumps. In fact, advertised vacancies in this sector increased by 36% between June and August 2020. Growth sectors that are currently desperate for employees include e-commerce, digital content, social media and digital marketing.

The lack of digitally skilled workers is a major pain point for almost two-thirds of UK businesses (FDM Group, 2021), while 42% of SME employers are reporting internal digital skills shortages. Thankfully, appetite for digital upskilling is on the rise. Nearly 75% of people over the age of 45 say they are willing to invest time in learning digital skills (Microsoft, 2021).

Nationally, quotes a profound digital marketing skills shortage, with 50% of new graduates not equipped for this sector. Meanwhile, BAME representation in digital agencies was only 14% in 2019.

Bridging the gap

Training is emerging to tackle these national skills shortages. The expansion of the tech sector in Greater Manchester, for example, has created the UK’s largest digital and creative cluster outside of London, and with it, a wealth of opportunities for younger workers. In 2020, We Are Digital worked on a pilot project with the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) and the Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to improve digital skills regionally in a contract funded by the Department for Education. Indeed, the LEP’s Digital Landscape Summary Report (2019) highlighted marketing as ‘one of three skills gaps in the incumbent Lancashire digital workforce’.

The 12-week training course, known as Digital Boost, specifically targeted diverse and excluded communities, providing participants with the skills and confidence they need to gain higher paid roles in digital industry.

Applications were particularly encouraged from women, black and minority ethnicity residents and those who have historically struggled to access training and education for financial reasons. Young people disadvantaged or displaced by COVID-19 were also a focus. Each demographic target was hit in terms of course attendees.

Attendees learned how to plan, test and implement and refine digital campaigns, working as a team to design and present a commercial strategy. Our students learn that it is possible to take fresh ideas into competitive modern marketing businesses, while our training emphasises that diverse backgrounds are an advantage in digital industries where authenticity and individual stories are highly prized. In a boost for attendee confidence, guaranteed interviews with local employers are on offer. Many course graduates went on to new, well-paid digital marketing roles in companies of all shapes and sizes.

Over the course of the year, the Digital Futures Fund, itself a Prince’s Trust Workforce Fund and GCMA partnership initiative, will provide training and support to enable hundreds of young people aged 16 to 25 to take their first steps into their future digital careers.

Tapping into tenant potential

This training offer has now been rolled out nationally and is making its way into the housing association sector too. We’re working with Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing Association (MTVH), which provides homes and services across 57,000 homes in London, the southeast and the East Midlands, to develop future digital marketing work opportunities for tenants.

The project will target residents aged 18 plus and reaching up to 48 attendees. Developing future work opportunities in partnership with other organisations is a strategic priority for MTVH’s Empowering Futures Team, equipping residents with the skills and confidence to apply for better-paid jobs within the marketing and tech sector. The move forms part of MTVH’s Resident and Customer Empowerment Strategy.

Skills and business growth

For employers, the situation is win-win, with workforce-wide digital skills linked closely to business growth. We have personally witnessed a growing desire to fill digital skills gaps. Indeed, employers in our growing national database, which includes start-ups, SMEs and big corporates, are ready to take on work experience placements, apprentices and early careers roles linked to our training in digital marketing.

The opportunities are certainly there for a brighter future for the skilled new workers of the future, who may just be in need of a confidence boost to help them gain higher paid roles in digital industry.


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