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New report highlights impact of digital exclusion on access to education and employment in the North East

A new report published by the North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) has highlighted the impact digital exclusion in the North East LEP area is having on people’s ability to access education, skills and employment.

Commissioned by the North East LEP’s Skills Advisory Panel (SAP), ‘Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area’ looks specifically at the economic and skills-related impacts of digital exclusion in County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle upon Tyne, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland.

Published alongside IPPR North’s ‘Addressing digital exclusion in North East England’ research paper, the LEP’s digital exclusion report was carried out by New Skills Consulting.

Using data from the Office for National Statistics, it shows more than 200,000 people in the North East LEP area have either never used the internet, or have not used it in the last three months. It also reinforces existing findings that show people from disadvantaged backgrounds are most affected by digital exclusion.

Michelle Rainbow, Skills Director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: ‘Whilst we know digital exclusion is a problem in the North East, the coronavirus pandemic has really exacerbated the issue and highlighted why we must address it now.

“This report has allowed us to see the scale of the problem for the first time, and how COVID-19 has extended the gap that already existed in our region.

“If we truly want to level up the country and provide opportunities for all, we must address the issue of digital exclusion, and we must do it in partnership with businesses, education, the voluntary sector, and the public sector.”

‘Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area’ highlights that whilst the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital adoption, it has also widened the gap in areas like education and employment, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. A lack of in-person support during the pandemic has made it easier for people to withdraw, and limited access to digital devices has prevented people from accessing online training, job searches, and interviews.

Employers have also raised concerns about a lack of digital skills within the region’s workforce. A survey by the Department for Education in 2019 found 20% of North East employers found it difficult to recruit applicants with computer literacy or basic IT skills. 26% said they found it difficult to recruit people with advanced or specialist IT skills.

The report also looks at the effectiveness of existing initiatives to address digital exclusion, arguing that the current system is complex, with overlapping programmes and gaps in support. It also argues that much of the support available quickly becomes out of date and doesn’t meet the learning needs of people using the services.

Michelle continued: “If we look to countries like Finland, digital literacy is something that’s taught from kindergarten, it has the same level of importance as reading, writing and math’s.

“Whatever our agreed approach moving forward, we need to recognise that this issue isn’t just something that affects young people; it impacts people of all ages and at every stage in their lives. If people can’t access online tools to extend their learning, or can’t search and apply for employment opportunities online, how can they get into work or move up the career ladder from low-skill to high-skill jobs?”

The report puts forward a series of recommendations, recognising that the region’s response requires the support of academia; business; the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector; and the public sector.

Carol Botten, CEO of VONNE (Voluntary Organisations Network North East) and member of the North East LEP Skills Advisory Panel (SAP), said: “Some of the recommendations in our report can be delivered regionally, but others will need the support of Government and other stakeholders.

“We need to address the problem of access to digital devices, and how connectivity can be an additional barrier to people using digital services.

“We also need to prioritise education in digital skills from an early age, and ensure it becomes part of the curriculum in further and higher education.

“And by working with the business community, we can begin to develop a common framework for basic digital skills that meets the needs of employers.”

Michelle concluded: “Using the insights from this report and the IPPR North report, we plan to raise awareness of the scale of the challenge, agree a collective vision for the North East, and draw up the key areas we need to prioritise and address.

“This is a huge challenge for our region, and we won’t be able to tackle it all in one go. But we can start the process and make sure no one in the North East is left behind because they lack access to the digital skills, equipment and infrastructure so many of us take for granted.”

Read the Executive Summary of Digital Exclusion in the North East LEP Area by visiting the North East Evidence Hub.

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Uncovering digital talent in the North East

Sunderland Software City, which supports digital and tech businesses to grow and become sustainable, is part of the North East Digital for Growth Workforce delivery group.

We spoke to Jill McKinney, Head of Skills and Training at Sunderland Software City, about how the working group is addressing the complexity of the digital skills gap and how we can make careers in the digital sector accessible to everyone.

The issue of digital skills in the workforce is high on everyone’s agenda and it’s an issue that isn’t going to go away.

As more businesses are digitalised there will be a massive step-change in demand for digital talent, and this is only going to increase.

Yes North East businesses can innovate and yes, they can digitalise. But how can we make sure that they also have access to the people and the talent they need? This question applies across all sectors, from manufacturing and engineering to healthcare and education.

And this is why the North East Digital for Growth strategy is so important.

As part of the strategy, four delivery groups have been formed, each focusing on a different theme: data; infrastructure and connectivity; digital collaboration and enterprise; and workforce. The workforce delivery group, which includes Sunderland Software City, is diverse and task-focused and one thing I’d like to see us develop is an understanding of which digital skills initiatives are working well across the region, so we can scale up programmes that are effective.

For example, at Sunderland Software City we are already working with thousands of learners in schools, colleges and universities; with people who are unemployed or looking for a career change; and with ex-offenders, helping all these people to take steps on the pathway to a digital career.

And of course we also work with businesses – in the digital sector and across the board – helping them to upskill their current workforce and making sure that they have access to the talent they need in order to grow.

There is a huge layer of ‘hidden talent’ in the North East. For example, people who are leaving education but who don’t have the support they need in order to take the next steps into a digital career. To help address this, we work with schools from primary level upwards to help raise awareness amongst young people of the opportunities we have here and give an extra layer of careers guidance.

We run a five-day ‘boot camp’ for young people aged 16 to 25 who aren’t in employment, education or training and who might not otherwise have access to roles in the digital sector, introducing them to the diversity of businesses they could work with and helping them start on the pathway to a career.

We also work with people of all ages who are unemployed or looking for a career change, and, more recently, we have started to work with ex-offenders, helping them to understand the skills they may need and what the digital landscape in the North East is like.

I believe that we do have the talent here in the region but what we lack is awareness about what roles are out there and how people can access them.

We’ve seen some fantastic results from our work. Research carried out by Durham University on behalf of Sunderland Software City showed that ex-offenders we worked with experienced improvements in mental health, feelings of self-worth, and ability to learn new skills. A number of participants have now moved on to employment in digital roles or have started their own businesses. So how can we scale up activities like these which we know are working well?

A collaborative approach will be key to making sure that we retain talent in our region and helping people to realise that there are opportunities here for them.

There is a lot of talent here in the North East, but the digital sector can be difficult for some people to break into. We need to break down the barriers and invite people in.

Read the North East Digital for Growth strategy. You can sign up to receive news and opportunities for the digital sector from the North East LEP here.


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Harnessing digital potential in the North East

At the start of October, a new digital strategy for the North East was launched. Digital for Growth brings together partners from across the region to maximise opportunities for growth and investment. North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Skills Director, Michelle Rainbow, talks about digital skills and how our workforce will form a vital component of this new digital strategy.

The North East is a region with a vibrant digital ecosystem that is packed with the potential to deliver economic growth and more, new jobs as it continues to flourish.

That’s not just jobs which might be typically defined as digital – for example, gaming design or software development – but roles across all areas of industry, as more and more organisations embrace digitalisation and the increased productivity it brings

To make sure we’re in the best possible position to reap the benefits of digitalisation for our region, we need to focus on the digital skills needs that we know exist in the North East. We must make sure that people in our area – both our existing workforce and the workforce of the future – have the digital skills that employers are looking for, and the skills that will allow everyone to fully take part in an increasingly digitalised society.

We want to completely dispel any myths and stereotypes that exist when people think about digital skills, or careers in the digital sector, and we want to empower people of all ages and backgrounds to upskill and take advantage of new technologies and digital job opportunities.

Part of our work around this will be to link employers closely with schools, colleges and education providers to ensure that young people, from primary-school age onwards, understand the range of possibilities open to them in our region, whether that’s a career in a digitally focussed organisation or a role in any sector which will require sound digital skills.

The Digital for Growth strategy focuses on the many digital hubs and networks we have in the region, plus our colleges, universities and training providers. Strong relationships between education and industry are already having a positive impact and we want to see more of this happening throughout the region, across businesses of all sizes and types.

We also believe it’s especially important that employers continue to look to the future, champion digital skills development and invest in training for their workforce. Lifelong learning, training opportunities, mid-career retraining and non-linear career paths are other examples of areas where employers can take positive action to upskill existing workers and help to secure a pipeline of appropriately-skilled people for years to come.

The North East LEP aims to create 100,000 more and better jobs in the North East by 2024, and many of these jobs will be within the digital sector, or they will require strong digital skills.

Working together to address our digital skills needs is vital if we are to make sure that people in our region can enjoy a better quality of life, if our businesses are to continue to grow and take on new staff, and if our young people are to build fulfilling and successful careers.

Read more about the North East’s Digital for Growth strategy here. If you’d like to join the North East LEP’s working group for digital skills, please get in touch at [email protected].