The first regional BCS Digital Skills Network event was held in central Manchester recently, and it focused on how organisations and firms are tackling the digital skills gap. As Claire Penketh reports, diversity and inclusion are at the heart of the matter.

Almost a hundred people attended the event to hear experts discuss how to boost digital skills training and the tech workforce. There was a real passion and energy in the room, said BCS Chief Executive Rashik Parmar, with people exchanging ideas on how to drive change: "People and organisations are meeting, sometimes for the first time since lockdown, and are building partnerships. It's a connection that is fabulous. It's helping us make IT good for society because we bring technology right into the centre of the growth agenda, which is key for these regions."

The Digital Skills Network was launched in May 2022, bringing together large and small businesses; training providers, recruiters, and educational institutions; Local Enterprise Partnerships and policymakers. It aims to stimulate discussion around, and act on, the digital skills shortage.

Watch a short interview of BCS Chief Executive Rashik Parmar, interviewed after the regional Digital Skills Network event.


Diversity and Inclusion

The lack of diversity in technology was addressed throughout the conference with the emphasis that changing the status quo isn't only the right thing to do – it will boost the workforce.

In conversation with the BCS CEO, Hauwa Ottun, Senior Programme Manager at Black CodHer and Niyo FoundHers at Niyo Group, spoke about the changes companies could make.

Her organisation exists to empower black women to pursue their business ideas and career aspirations through tech boot camps. She said: "One of the things firms can do is to partner with organisations like ours, or any of the other wonderful organisations out there, working to make tech more accessible. Secondly, when people come into your organisations, ensure you are inclusive and create an environment where they can succeed."

Aaron Saxton, Director of Disruptive Learning at the University Academy 92 in Trafford, spoke about the need to inspire people in socially and economically deprived communities to go into tech. His message was clear – if they can't see it, they can't believe in it. He said: "We work with all our local communities, delivering masterclasses and events that help them believe that Higher Education is a great destination for them. Also, we show how digital apprenticeships and boot camps could be right for them. They can achieve if they believe it and see trust, loyalty, and authenticity."

On the subject of women in tech in general, Dan Troke, Director of Apprenticeships at Bit Training, said: "I've worked in IT now for 15 years, and there is no reason to think a woman has any less ability than a man when it comes to IT. The fact that the workforce is so slanted at the moment means we're losing fifty per cent of the talent available to us."

Return to work

One woman seeking to change that is Beckie Taylor, who co-founded Tech Returners in 2017 – an organisation providing skilled tech professionals wanting to return to the industry after a break with inclusive programmes that refresh their skills and offer career opportunities. During the session, People Leading Tech, she talked about how she had been a senior HR Director in the tech industry when she had her first child. She was already the sole woman on the team of 13 – and then she became the only parent.

She said: "I understood the challenges people faced transitioning out and back into such a fast-paced industry like tech, so I started to explore this and set up a group called Women in Tech North. It became evident that there needed to be more support for people returning to tech after a career break.

"If you look at the stats around the gender pay gap – we can all build the early talent pipeline, but if we're not retaining talent, then we're not going to fix the numbers."

Beckie said events like the BCS DSN were 'invaluable', adding: "For organisations like us, we know there are still negative perceptions about returners – a false idea they don't have up-to-date experience, or they don't want to come back to work, or progress in their career. We know that's not the case, and we're on a mission to change those perceptions, and we can do so at events like this."

Reaching young people

Getting young people into a career in IT was the subject of another panel, hosted by Christos Orthodoxou from TheTalentPeople and GetMyFirstJob. Becky King, the UK Apprentice Lead for Microsoft, said one of the main challenges faced by employers is a lack of awareness and understanding about digital apprenticeship programmes.

She said there's still a misconception that a traditional university degree is the only path: "The most impactful conversations we have is often with parents after their child has started an apprenticeship when they realise what an opportunity it is. What's needed is for parents to be that engaged and advocate before the start of the apprenticeship programme."

She added that most companies now see the benefits of training apprentices: "I think there's the opportunity to have different talent pipelines – so for Microsoft, we have our graduate programme, interns, and apprenticeships.

"What we value with the apprenticeship programme is that we build skills for us and Microsoft's SME network of thousands of companies. On some of our programmes, spending an initial 18 months with us can help take out some of the blockers for SMEs, and then the apprentice can accelerate on to their next opportunity within our partner network."

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Cristian Sellecchia and Saran Kaur praised their training from their employer Cisco. Cristian, a digital marketing manager, went through the graduate scheme after completing two internships. Saran is a degree apprentice at Cisco in her third and final year as a systems engineer.

She said an apprenticeship was the correct route for her as she valued earning whilst she learned. She chose tech because she wanted to future-proof her career and firmly believes there is a need for more women in the industry.

Cristian said he was always technologically inclined and relished his current job: "I've never looked back. It's been an amazing experience. I have a fantastic team around me, and they want the best for me and my career."

Saran said speaking at the DNS event was rewarding: "It's been great to meet new people with new mindsets, and they also wanted to talk to us. I felt I added value and could bring new ideas and perspectives, and people listened."

The end of the CV?

For Georgina Crean, Head of Talent at Jisc, the not-for-profit organisation supporting digital and data projects across higher and further education in the UK, the value of the event was listening to some of the simple things that work. She said: "There have been some great ideas that have come up to help people think differently about how they are attracting and retaining tech talent in their organisation."

One of the points that came up was ditching the CV, which Georgina supported: "We have to think of more innovative ways to understand what a candidate's strengths are, their capabilities and potential. These are all things that are very hard to know from a CV, especially for young people without much work experience. I think a new approach is needed in recruitment now."

Health and care skills shortage

The effect of the digital skills shortage on the health and care sectors was discussed in another session. It focused on the recruitment challenges the NHS is undergoing during a time of enormous pressure on the service. In addition, the pandemic has seen a massive digital transformation in the sector brought on by the COVID 19 pandemic.

Trish Reilly, Head of Digital Programmes at Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: "Everything we do within digital should focus on releasing staff to give them time to care. But that can only happen when we release people to give them time to learn. Currently, we're working overtime on the wards, so that is difficult."

Education is key

A panel of nine regional educators, advisors and policymakers considered digital skills education and lifelong learning towards the end of the day.

One of the points raised was how old children should be when they start to learn computing, and the consensus was the younger, the better.

Oliver Kerr, Associate Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Central Lancaster, pointed out that learning computational thinking early in life could help anyone: "It doesn't matter if you want to be a plumber or a software engineer, it's about teaching them to think," he said.

Speaking after the event, Julia Adamson, BCS Director of Education, said: "Today has been fantastic, with so many people here all totally passionate about digital skills, equipping the workforce, and helping young talent to enter their tech careers."

Further regional DNS events are planned for next year in Glasgow and Reading.

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Photo: Left to Right Christos Orthodoxou, The TalentPeople/ Get My First Job; Amy Davies The TalentPeople /Get My First Job; Saran Kaur, Cisco; Cristian Sellecchia, Cisco, Georgina Crean, Jisc, Kashif Taj, IBM, Becky King, Microsoft.