What is TechEast doing to tackle the digital skills challenge in the East of England?

There is a paradox: the more successful a digital tech cluster becomes the more talent is required to fuel that success.

This is a conundrum faced by many successful regions around the world.  In the UK the Tech Nation Report reflects the views of both tech businesses and businesses in other sectors who are reliant on technologists to drive their growth.

Almost without exception access to skills and talent is the number one challenge facing businesses today.  However, while the East of England is not alone in this regard, as a region we are now driving very hard to solve what is a complex set of issues.

 As more sectors look for digital solutions, the entire economy relies on individuals with tech skills. TechEast is on a mission to make the East of England one of the top five tech hubs in the UK by 2020. For the region to continue on this trajectory, we need to increase our number of digitally skilled residents, attract more talent to the region and retain our digital workforce rather than lose it to other places.

While the Tech Nation Report focuses on the importance of skills like coding and programming, this isn’t all that tech businesses or digitally-intensive businesses need. In order to scaleup, tech firms need talent across a range of functions: leadership, sales, marketing, operations, finance, HR… like any other business.  However, finding specialist talent with deep experience in the tech sector is a challenge.

When there’s not enough talent to go around, hiring becomes even more difficult. As a membership network we spend a majority of our time talking to tech businesses about their needs.  We have identified a number of questions that tech businesses should be asking themselves before embarking on a recruitment process.

1) Are we being realistic about the salary and benefits package being offered for the role; is this enough to tempt the right person to come work in the region or ensure that we are not losing the talent we have regionally to other parts of the UK e.g. London?

2) Are we considering the right recruitment techniques for the role in question? For example, while using a recruitment agency may seem like a costly option, it should be viewed as a good investment in a way to find exceptional talent that may not be looking for a job at the moment.  Jobs boards, LinkedIn, word of mouth all have their part to play but again it is important to be realistic.

In some cases, businesses aren’t being realistic about what it takes to hire talent at senior levels. If a salary isn’t competitive, candidates will look beyond the region for the right pay, often in London.

As part of our mission to create the UK’s most open and collaborative tech cluster, we’re taking both short and long-term action to increase the digital talent in our region.

In the short-term, we offer some practical membership benefits that TechEast members can use today.

TechEast members can benefit from:

  • Discount on recruitment services from our Corporate Affinity partner, IF Recruitment (Fixed Fee Recruitment at 15% and £500.00 Credit note for Second Hire)
  • Promotion of your vacancies on TechEast twitter feed
  • The opportunity to showcase your business to potential employees through TE member spotlight. Member Spotlight features to highlight your business as an attractive employer
  • Opportunity to participate in specialist recruitment and employment fairs and events. TechEast careers hub at local employment fairs
  • Our peer-to-peer network, signposting you to recruitment schemes, and putting you in touch with members with similar experiences
  • Alternatives to recruitment for example to partner with universities to bring new skills to your business. These can range from formal arrangements such as Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) to light touch interactions for example through the new EIRA,  Eastern Arc applications to help you partner with academics or research organisations

While this short-term work provides an immediate fix for members in need, the demand for skills is only going to increase.

When TechEast launched back in 2016, we made it our mission to create a further 5,000 jobs in the region, as well as generate an extra £650m GVA of economic growth. To do this, we promised “to work with local and national educational partners to develop the relevant sector skills and benefit from cutting edge research”.

TechEast partnered with the New Anglia LEP to create the Digital Skills Plan, published in September 2017. This plan outlines how the region can ensure it has the talent needed to continue growing. Following its publication, TechEast is now leading the Digital Skills Taskforce to make the plan a reality.

One of the main roles of the Digital Skills Taskforce is establishing a two-way conversation between businesses and education providers around all types of educational learning and development and work experience pathways. For example, apprenticeships, traditional degrees and mid-career upskilling and reskilling.  However, in order to tackle what root causes the gaps it is necessary to start right at the beginning of a young person’s educational journey including engaging at primary school age to introduce more computational thinking and inspiration in the world of technology and science; and informing GCSE choices, for example, is computer science being taught and promoted effectively as a key subject?

At a recent skills conference in London the point was made that the average half-life of digital skills is only 2.5years.  The tech industry moves so fast, that university curriculum’s and syllabus’s can rapidly get out of date.  Employers are increasingly finding that graduates are not coming with work ready skills needed.  We know from talking to both employers and educational providers that there is real value in a forum for collaborative conversations and that is what TechEast provides.  Alongside TechEast organisations in the East are being proactive in ensuring that the skills issues are being addressed.

Two of TechEast members are playing an important role in the development of skills in young people within our region –  Step into Tech and the Creative Computing Club operate to introduce tech skills in a fun and creative environment.

To help local residents brush up their tech skills, Norfolk’s Library Service is the second in the country to become a Cisco Academy. Aspiring IT professionals can complete short online courses on subjects such as the internet of things, cybersecurity, linux, and entrepreneurship.

Another Norfolk firm taking action to upskill locals is software development firm, Netmatters. To bridge the skills gap, they established the Scions Coalition Programme. This scheme allows would-be developers to undergo free, intensive training to prepare them for a dev career.

While it’s great to see initiative taking place in the region to increase the skills of our residents, it remains likely that businesses will need to recruit some talent from outside East Anglia to meet demand and we’re lucky that the East is one of the most desirable places in the UK to live.

As we said earlier skills is complex multifaceted area requiring genuine collaboration across all the people and organisations who have a role to play.  While there is much still to be done the East is shaping up well to be a leader in digital skills.

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