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Digital Skills Festival

5 Thoughts From Manchester Digital Skills Festival

On Tuesday I spent my day off not eating pancakes*, but at the first day of Manchester Digital’s “Digital Skills Festival”. As well as a first look at the results of the annual Skills Audit, the day featured speakers and panels from industry leaders discussing digital talent, the skills shortage and practical solutions for adapting to new industry trends.

Here are a few thoughts I had after the day…


There’s still work to do

The Digital Skills Festival coincided with the release of Manchester Digital’s Skills Audit Report, outlining the current skills shortage landscape and issues faced by tech/digital businesses in the region. 49% of surveyed businesses struggle to recruit developers, while demand has grown significantly for talent in data science and data analysis.

Although businesses had a 68% average success rate filling positions in 2017, 27% had to turn away work as a result of not being able to find the right talent.

Javascript developer skills shortage

AI is here, and we’re not ready for it

AI and machine learning were a new entry in the skillsets identified by businesses as “growing in importance”. It was noted at the Digital Skills Festival that the general population still largely have little understanding of what AI and machine learning even are. Could this impact on attracting the future workforce to the industry due to a lack of understanding and awareness of the skills required?

Manchester Digital, in their Skills Audit Report (p9), say that: “research we did in this area shows that most companies are teaching themselves and using informal/peer learning to up skill themselves rather than recruiting those skills from universities”.

Interested in learning more about Machine Learning? I’d highly recommend Stanford University’s Machine Learning course on Coursera (I’m only part way through it, but so far 10/10). This also got a shout out on the day on the Predicting the Future panel.

We need various “shaped” people for the tech/digital community to thrive

One of my favourite parts of the Digital Skills Festival was the panel on “T-Shaped People”. This concept is a couple of decades old now, here’s the definition from Wikipedia if you’re not familiar with it:

“The vertical bar on the T represents the depth of related skills and expertise in a single field, whereas the horizontal bar is the ability to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise other than one’s own.” – source

Panellists were generally in agreement that the “horizontal” skills of collaboration, communication and understanding what’s going on around you are essential in tech. However there was interesting discussion about how we create or find those people – and if ‘T’ is even the shape we should be looking for.

Tony Foggett of Code Computerlove emphasised the importance of “empathy, collaboration, curiosity and commitment to understanding and improving the environment around them (team, organisation)”, while Beth Hewitt (University of Salford) spoke about the importance of “T shaped” educators, while noting that there is certainly still a place in education for those with deep “vertical” expertise in their specialism (PhD students, for example).

Anna Holland Smith‘s point resonated with me most – to paraphrase, we should be looking for people of ALL “shapes” to build a more diverse tech community. Companies may need to invest more in creating well-rounded employees – whether that’s developing their specialism or soft skills. And while universities still have a place, Anna (a developer at the BBC) suggested that the future workforce will come from lots of different routes. They may all be equally capable, but skilled-up in different ways.

Digital Skills Festival

Education + industry = real life skills, inspired and work-ready students

“Only 13% of businesses felt that graduates had the right soft skills and technical knowledge for work readiness” – source

I heard from, and spoke to, several people throughout the day who are trying to change this, and ensure that graduates (or anyone coming to tech/digital through other routes) are work-ready and gaining the practical skills that the industry needs now and in the near future.

Jo Morfee from InnovateHer/Liverpool Girl Geeks gave an overview of the inspiring work they are doing getting girls and women into tech. She spoke about their schemes both in and outside of education, including the new InnovateHer programme currently running at Belvedere Academy and soon to expand to more schools within Liverpool and Manchester.

A stand-out for me was their emphasis on inclusion (something they are tackling by working within schools rather than relying on reaching girls through extracurricular activities), and working with industry partners (e.g. Alder Hey) to inspire their participants with real-life examples of tech projects improving lives.

Dicey Tech spoke about the “4th industrial revolution”, their 3D printer for schools and corresponding educational platform where teachers/students can find projects and learning resources. They gave some fantastic examples of schools around the world integrating 3D printing into STEAM teaching and extra curricular activities.

I also spoke to exhibitors from Manchester Metropolitan University about their Degree Apprenticeships, where graduates leave work-ready, with industry experience and no tuition debt. Speakers on various panels emphasised the importance of industry practitioners and educators working together to build programmes that reflect real-world needs, and in particular address the current/predicted skills gaps.

Curiosity, adaptability and ability to learn are key

This theme came up over and over again throughout the day at the Digital Skills Festival. On the “Predicting the Future” panel, Danielle Haugedal-Wilson said my favourite quote of the day:

“There’s no substitute for someone with a healthy curiosity”

She also spoke about finding talent among existing employees, suggesting that in those in more “traditional” jobs at the Co-op group, such as call centres, can transition into tech roles such as project management or UX using their existing strengths, with the right training providing the technical knowledge.

Michael Lambert, on the same panel, said that at CDL, they look for “high-level collaboration, people who want to learn & teach other people. Not ego or politics”.

Jo Morfee, speaking about InnovateHer and Liverpool Girl Geeks, noted that although their schemes have tech and digital content, what they’re imparting to the participants is the mindset and curiosity needed to inspire them to a career in the industry.

How do businesses identify employees for the future if they don’t yet know what the future looks like? Several times it was suggested that they might need to strike a balance between hiring those with current technical knowledge/capability (to get the current job done) and those with the ability to adapt, learn and up-skill as the tech/digital landscape changes.


Read the Skills Audit Report | Let me know your thoughts on Twitter

*don’t worry, I had pancakes later on

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