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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.