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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.


Home / tech sector North East

Steering the way to growth in the North East digital sector

Stuart Lynn, Chair of the North East Digital for Growth steering group, explains how the region’s new digital strategy is being carried forward. A former Chief Technical Officer at Sage UK, Stuart went on to found Tech North East and is also Visiting Professor of Technology at the University of Sunderland.

As a huge advocate of the region and the digital sector, it is a privilege to be the Chair of the steering group which will support the development and delivery of the North East’s Digital for Growth strategy.

The Digital for Growth steering group brings together a number of highly experienced representatives from the digital and tech business community and academia to oversee the strategy, and to work with the LEP and partners in Local Authorities. Its purpose is to provide advice, advocacy and support to businesses and to the rich support ecosystem across the North East, and to work together to meet our objectives and contribute to the ongoing success of the region.

A tremendous amount of thought went into creating the Digital for Growth strategy. It has been built around the needs of the region, whilst leveraging the UK’s Industrial Strategy, the region’s Strategic Economic Plan and the Local Industry Strategy, and the four core ‘enabling pillars’ of the strategy have been carefully chosen for maximum impact.

So, how do we know what success will look like for our digital sector?

My personal ambition is for the North East to have a burgeoning digital tech sector that is recognised and acclaimed nationally and internationally as an exemplar of digital innovation, business creation and regional prosperity.

As delivery of the strategy gains momentum, I would expect to see more investment across the sector, from within and outside of the region. This will help accelerate growth and deliver more success.

I would also expect to see the current skills gap closing and that we create significantly more opportunities for people looking to start their career in sector, and that we retain key skills in the North East rather than people having to leave the region in pursuit of career progression. This is an important agenda for most if not all regional sectors and one which our academic partners in collaboration with industry will play a key role in addressing.

And, I would expect to see an upsurge in positive news stories covering regional success and more North East companies receiving accolades, locally, nationally and internationally.

Collaborative partnership is the ‘secret sauce’ to future success and we already have many notable organisations working for the benefit of the sector. The emergence of the Digital for Growth strategy provides a great opportunity to further support and amplify the initiatives that are already in flight, as well as introduce some new ones.

As a region, we have a history of innovation and creativity which defines us. We have a strength of character and we’re not scared of hard work. These values are as strong across the digital sector today as they were when the North East led the world in engineering, mining and shipbuilding.

I’m certain that by getting behind this strategy, as I know the region can, we will see many more digital tech start-up businesses being formed, more start-ups will become scale-ups, and more large corporations will choose to invest in the North East. This will ultimately create an abundance of new opportunities and put the North East on the national and international map as a major digital powerhouse.

Stuart Lynn, Chair, North East Digital for Growth steering group.