Where we’re at with talent and skills – and where we want to be in 2017

20 Dec, 2016

2016 has brought a huge amount of change – the UK voting to leave the EU; losing one prime minister and four UK party leaders; the election of outsider Donald Trump as US president.

For me, this year has represented a move out of journalism, heading back up North and spending the last three months establishing exactly what our ‘digital skills crisis’ actually looks like.

There’s been a huge amount of skills data and policy put out in 2016, from government and elsewhere, and I’ve also spent a lot of time hearing the lived experience of learners, employers and everyone in between, to give us some idea of the challenge.

In 2017 we’ll be delivering Tech North’s new talent and skills strategy to address this, at a pan-regional level.


Just yesterday, Roehampton University’s Annual Computing Education Report served up a mixed picture of the nation’s efforts to get more young people skilled up in digital.

The South East, almost inevitably, has the most students studying the new computing GCSE, followed by London and then the North West. The North East sees the fewest students studying this subject. And there are still seven local authorities that do not yet offer an A Level in computing, including Gateshead, Knowsley and Salford. Overall, fewer than 5,000 people took the qualification last year across the whole country.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, Roehampton lecturer Peter Kemp highlighted that the phasing out of ICT in favour of computer science has brought with it a significant drop in take-up among girls, poorer children and ethnic minorities.

He put much of this down to schools being “fearful of producing a course where they will not be successful” and therefore “selecting students to take the new GCSE.” It’s their perception of who will succeed, it appears, that is preventing computing being a course for everyone.

Learning on the job

The latest data from government on vocational training, meanwhile, reveals the lowest take-up since 2009 across all subjects and levels. Delving into apprenticeships, and new starter figures look to be on the increase after a lull in 2014 and 2015. The government has ambitions to reach 3 million apprenticeship starts (not finishes) by 2020 – that’s from the 509,000 started last year.

The apprenticeship levy, with its new digital platform to launch in April 2017, is being designed to make it easier, and in many cases effectively compulsory, for companies to start spending money on training young people for employment.

Today, you’re 10 times as likely to find someone starting a business, administration or law apprenticeship than you are to find an information and communication technology apprentice. The good news is that the new Trailblazers apprenticeship standards are being developed directly with industry, covering everything from accountancy to welding, and are “required to consider whether digital skills should be built in.”

Of course, we all know digital jobs aren’t simply about learning to code in schools or when doing vocational qualifications – every business needs business people, creative people and technical people. Increasingly, digital skills to help you do your job more efficiently are becoming as necessary as English and maths.

The new education funding formula has also just been devised, which will see an increase in school budgets in places like Bury, Blackpool and Knowsley, while Cheshire West, Chester and central Manchester are among areas that will see a cut.

The idea is to rebalance the amount given to inner city schools versus rural schools, but a headteacher speaking to the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme this week said that “overall, school funding hasn’t been keeping up with inflation”.

According to the latest from the National Audit Office, there’s expected to be a £3 billion funding shortfall for schools across the UK, which presents a huge challenge to those working to address the issues in our labour market.


The IPPR North think tank has just published a very comprehensive State of the North report establishing just how resilient the 11 local enterprise partnership economies are, particularly in relation to the challenges presented by Brexit.

The report has been designed to inform the government’s new Industrial Strategy, with a focus on: boosting particular sectors in specific regions, making the best of devolution deals and promoting inclusive growth.

Earlier this year, the Northern Powerhouse Independent Economic Review highlighted the North’s key industries as: advanced manufacturing, health innovation, energy and digital, financial and professional services, higher education, and logistics.

But the IPPR report found that most of the northern LEPs, including Greater Manchester, Leeds, the North East, Liverpool, the Humber, Tees Valley and Sheffield are all vulnerable, “primarily in their labour market”. Too often “low resident qualifications” mean many people are currently excluded from the labour force.

And, although six of the LEPs are getting some skills powers devolved as part of their devolution deals so they have more power over certain areas of policy and spending, the landscape is patchy.

Source: Business Skills, IPPR

In November, Tech North took five cities and nine companies down to the Silicon Milkroundabout jobs fair in London to show off the great tech companies, great digital jobs and great cities we have up here.

Having just moved back myself, I know there’s a growing appetite to find places outside the capital to start proper lives and families – and fortunately the North is full of them. And, if we the North needs skilled people quickly, we know London is packed to bursting point.

Into 2017

In 2017, we’ll be convening another Talent and Skills Summit where we’re aiming to bring together all of the many stakeholders in this conversation – including young people, parents, employers, recruiters and more.

Here, we’ll be launching a report alongside Tech City UK that aims to properly quantify the digital skills gap, as well as doing a deep dive into a few areas of interest for learners and employers in the North, and announcing a number of new programmes designed to make the talent pool and training capacity larger.

Tech North will be looking to help those working in the alternative skills sector to scale up the programmes they deliver, currently covering everything from soft skills to apprenticeships to coding courses. It’ll also put a focus on increasing diversity in the tech workforce as a means of making that all-important talent pool bigger.

The Northern Powerhouse Strategy launched by government last month makes a strong commitment to the North’s digital economy.

Tech North is mandated to accelerate the growth of the digital economy here – and we know that work on talent and skills is going to be crucial to its success.

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