The latest BCS Digital Skills Network event headed to Reading in June, attended by over 100 delegates who heard speakers and panels discuss the tech sector in the region. Georgia Smith reports.

In an inspiring opening address CEO of Geeks Limited, Somayah Aghnia, used her own experience as an Iranian immigrant to illustrate how we are all immigrants to an unfamiliar digital world, emphasising the importance of building a new future that works for everyone. For Somayah, apprenticeships must educate on the history, ethics, and potential of AI and technology to produce ethical digital professionals.

“ We are all immigrants to this new era of AI”

The emerging themes of Reading’s DSN event were the importance of widening the hiring pool, nurturing existing talent, and improving accessibility. There was also lively discussion on developing positive relationships with AI and defining its potential roles, as well as working towards creating a force of ethical professionals who will use AI driven tools intentionally.

Did ChatGPT write this?

The event’s first panel discussed the role of generative AI tools like ChatGPT in the future of education. The panel was facilitated by BCS Account Director Tony Pitchford MBCS, and featured Director of Content and Learning Design at QA Ltd Ben Sweetman, Firebrand’s head of Curriculum Sean Rafter, and Principal Lecturer in Learning and Teaching at BPP University, Tim Hinchcliffe.

The consensus of the panel was that there is too much concern over how ChatGPT could be used to cheat. Tim argued that we should worry less about making assessment AI proof, instead focusing on how we can ensure the technology is working for us. Sean concurred, suggesting AI will unlock a huge amount of productivity and free time, but cautioning that the use of AI must always be clearly justified.

Ben Sweetman added that focusing on input rather than output by creating intelligent users of AI is the way forward; AI will inevitably become part of the educational experience, and pupils must be taught how to use the technology and the knowledge it makes accessible critically. Ben also pointed out the powerful potential of AI as a tool for those with learning difficulties such as dyslexia, and the positive impact this could have on their experience of education.

Skills policy update panel: could the apprenticeship levy work harder?

Facilitated by AELP’s Director of Policy for the Association of Employment and Learning Providers Simon Ashworth, the panel featured IBM’s Early Professionals Manager Charlotte Fisher-Morecroft, CMI’s Head of Policy and Innovation Daisy Hooper, Choreograph’s Director of Learning and Effectiveness Julia Assock, GK Apprenticeship’s Managing Director Paul Freeman, and Director of Content and Learning Design at QA Ltd Ben Sweetman.

There was a strong consensus that more flexibility in how the apprenticeship levy can be used would be ideal, with Julia advocating its use for shorter training courses or even international courses to increase equity. However, Daisy raised concerns that such flexibility would reduce the funding available to smaller businesses by enabling larger organisations to use it as a cost cutting measure to pay for existing training. Ben Sweetman added that flexing the levy may require the introduction of more rules to prevent misuse, and Paul agreed that it’s important to maintain accountability for spending the money.

Another key discussion was whether the levy should be extended to cover level 2 qualifications. Paul pointed out that they haven’t been offered so far because of the ‘digital expectations gap’, referring to the idea that employers want 3-5 years experience or fresh level 3 qualifications, resulting in a lack of demand. Ben Sweetman and Charlotte added that because advertised positions are mid and upper level, focusing funding towards level 2 qualifications isn’t practical; below level 3, skills bootcamps are more worthwhile. However, Julia added that while it’s true lower level roles aren’t available, changing this would offer a better entry route into tech and diversify the hiring pool.

Apprentices: a force for good — ending digital poverty by 2030

The afternoon kicked off with an address by Freddie Quek, Chair of the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA). He focused on the complexity of the issue of digital poverty, describing it as one with many dots to join. The DPA has already engaged in productive discussions with expert panels, local authorities, corporations, and civil servants to develop their plan to close the digital skills divide and end digital poverty by 2030.

Freddie’s speech was followed by a panel of apprentices Iyioluwa Adesan (NatWest), Henry David (BT), Maha Mobeen (Marston Holdings), Taylor Dowding (Santander), and Grace Tondeur (The Coventry Building Society), who discussed their various backgrounds and pathways to apprenticeship. There was a consensus that raising awareness of this alternative route to qualification, and engaging with schools, is key.

Attracting, retaining and growing a digital skills pipeline in 2023

Facilitated by BCS’ Sarah Foxall, this panel featured Choreograph’s Director of Learning and Effectiveness Julia Assock, Firebrand Learning Mentor Zaira Martinez Delgado, and The TalentPeople’s Director of Innovation and Insights Christos Orthodoxou, and Santander’s Taylor Dowding.

The panel focused on changing attitudes to apprenticeships and improving applications. Both Zaira and Taylor spoke on how a job specification which lists qualifications is intimidating, and that applications which focus on vital soft skills would widen appeal and accessibility. Christos also emphasised the importance of providing basic information like advice on what to wear to an interview as a key way to reduce intimidation.

UCAS personalised options for young people

Pete Milsom, UCAS Partnerships Manager, spoke on the developing role of apprenticeships in the UCAS experience. He commented that there is a significant, sustainable demand for apprenticeship, but that only 1/3 UCAS applicants say they get information about apprenticeships at school. The perception of a university education as more valuable and prestigious is an obstacle, and UCAS aims to ensure prospective students become equally well informed about apprenticeships and university routes by 2025.

Supporting the over 50s back into the workforce

This panel was facilitated by Lucy Ireland, Managing Director of BCS Learning and Development, and featured STEMO Returners Program Manager Simon Hutt, CMI Strategic Partnerships Proposition Manager Amanda Wood, Age Diversity Forum CEO Steve Anderson, and KPMG partner Jamie Thompson.

The panel agreed that the approach to training for older returners needs restructuring towards a focus on fostering skills, as well as using tailored techniques. There was also a consensus that positions must offer significant flexibility to be appealing. Both Amanda and Simon emphasised that age diverse teams are more stable and productive, making the loss of this age group a deficit to organisations — improving our ability to get this group back into work would increase our GDP by 20%.

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While Amanda emphasised that supporting an age diverse workforce is an organisation wide project, not just HR, Simon spoke specifically about how interviews should focus on the transferable skills and knowledge older applicants can offer. An audience question followed up on this point, asking how returners’ reluctance to share their experience, which ages them, can be resolved. The panel agreed that employers must create an air of confidence, while Lucy suggested doing away with employment-history focused CVs. Amanda added that training employers on the benefits of hiring returners could reduce subconscious age discrimination.

Simon also addressed the challenge returners face of being perceived as overqualified; employers assume they are seeking a senior position, when they may specifically be looking for a low responsibility, flexible role which still allows them to contribute and provide incredible value to businesses.

Attendee Gavin Ingels, said: ‘I was made redundant a few months ago from my role as a Digital Operations Team Manager and since then I have had difficulties getting back into work, possibly because I am 62 years old. I was inspired by Simon Hutt from STEM Returners. He is of a similar age and has been confronted with the same brick walls as I have, following his redundancy… There were plenty of opportunities to network and to discuss experiences with other attendees or the presenters. A thoroughly enjoyable day.’

Responding to the region’s challenges

Facilitated by BCS’ own Joe McLean, this panel featured Group Executive Director at Activate Learning Jon Adams, Gartner’s Gaurav Gupta, Digital Gum and Curious Academy’s Louize Clark, and Executive Principal at UTC Reading Wayne Edwards.

The panel opened by identifying the biggest challenges facing the region, with answers including a lack of collaboration, a lack of funding preventing equipment updates and training, and too much value being placed on hiring red brick graduates. There was a consensus that diversifying hiring practices should be a focus for the near future, with Gaurav particularly emphasising how reframing what skills we value will increase inclusivity. Louize also emphasised the need to accommodate a greater range of learning styles, while Jon advocated for increased online learning to widen accessibility to those with disabilities or time constraints that make on campus learning a barrier. While Louize emphasised the importance of increased business collaboration in increasing diversity across the region, Wayne specified that the skills pipeline could be greatly improved by focusing on improving connections between education and business.