The Digital Skills Summit – brokering skills between digital companies, students, and universities

I couldn’t attend the Digital Skills Summit delivered by Manchester Digital and Manchester Knowledge Capital last week. This was a shame: going by the #mcrdig hashtag on Twitter and chatting to a couple of delegates, a lot of the topics discussed are close to my heart at the moment:

  • A Skills Broker for the digital sector in Manchester or “The North” was discussed. This gets its own set of bullet points below, you lucky sods.
  • MMU’s David Bird stressed the importance of paid internships for students in the digital sector. This makes total sense. Employers are expecting students and recent graduates to be business-ready and entrepreneurial, on top of being technically skilled designers, coders, online marketers and so on. Their expectation to get paid should be part and parcel of this.
  • CPD for established digital professionals was a thorny issue, with some dissatisfaction being expressed at the quality of what’s on offer in the region – though it’s unclear if this was aimed at the private sector, the support agencies, or the universities, or all of the above. A tough one, this, and easy to get bogged down in if you lump all these different parts of the skills supply chain into one. I’ve touched on this topic in a previous post, asking  what price should be paid for digital sector training. Price has an immediate impact on quality and I’m concerned that there hasn’t really been a broad enough, meaningful discussion on the quality of training that might be offered to one industry in, by global standards, a pretty small area.

So, this skills broker idea was mentioned – and I wouldn’t blame Manchester Digital for wanting to position themselves for it, though I’m unclear on what’s holding them back. It’s a really good idea: universities and businesses could be doing a lot more together, and not just work-based training, if the relationships were right. A third party with a good overview of wants and needs on both sides could do some real good, and would provide a consistent stage to get top-tier thought leaders in technology, design and training in the 21st century speaking and teaching in the region, without stepping on the toes of Northern Digitals, Econsultancy, or anyone else.

Would a membership-based trade body be the one able to do this? I’d say they’d need to match up against the following attributes:

  • Autonomous: they would have to have strong partnerships with HE and industry, but would have to work to its own agenda and have a crystal clear, realistic mission statement. Those two groups are effectively clients, but not necessarily the users: they’re the students, graduates and CPD customers, and if the mix of influence is off-balance their interests could easily be forgotten.
  • Knowledgeable about training, and training as a harsh, competitive arena, as much as they might be about digital. One without the other won’t do.
  • Nimble and responsive: waiting on committees, steering groups and stakeholder meetings for permission on projects and products they’re not able to assess in detail will just slow things down, and rarely affect the outcome. There are things that could be started literally right now, with no real barriers.
  • Open-minded and accessible: the new waves of talent can come from anywhere and there is no archetype of success in such a frequently disrupted industry. This must be visible as more than a lip-service equal opportunities policy.

How you’d fund something like this is tricky, and may only be solved by being as iterative in the approach from the outset as possible, making a virtue out of trial and error. I’d suggest something small, lean and mean which wouldn’t need a physical base to get going: once I’d improved my know-how, I found a decent laptop, phone, connectivity and transport to be the main capital resources whether we’re talking about placements, online training or training events. Constitution-wise I’d be wary of creating a co-op for the reasons above, although the relatively new CIC model may work well in this instance. It may not even be a full-time job for one person to begin with. Revenue-wise I’d say a pay-as-you go system would enable that essential speed, flexibility and JFDI factor. Contracts and SLAs would be a secondary concern, and not a barrier to getting started.

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2 responses to “The Digital Skills Summit – brokering skills between digital companies, students, and universities

  1. @mothertown.wordpress.com

    Not quite sure what a “Skills Broker” would do. Sound grand, but I wonder if they’d just be another face at closed-door meetings or someone who would really make a difference to unemployed graduates with good degrees?

    On internships, the government have announced they will require all civil service internships to be posted on a central national website by 2012, rather than the current practice of a nod n’ a wink. They’re also pushing a voluntary code of conduct on unpaid internships to large firms nationally, with the implicit threat of future legislation is it’s not stuck to reasonably well. Possibly the digital creative industries should come up with their own similar code of conduct? I seem to remember that the arts already have one, although I haven’t hear much more about it since 2010.

    Formal membership-based “pay-dues” media trade bodies, at least in Birmingham, don’t have a great success rate historically. In the digital sector the groups that currently exist tend to fragment along guild lines – web designers / games / coders / advertisers / managing producers / film-makers / social media / animators / photographers etc having their own separate clubs that don’t appear to overap except perhaps in membership. Potential funders of such a new overarching body might also point to Creative England / Skills Councils and say that there’s already capacity to offer strategic research-informed advice to industry. But of course there’s also the need for other forms of engagement, such as simple Skyping talks that would help prise schools and other careers advisers out of the old “mass industrial” mindset on employment. Wouldn’t it be great if six of the most talented art and design kids in a school could “Skype-shadow” a creative team for a whole day, along with their careers advisor?

    One thing I’d like to see is simply subsidising of transport costs for accredited graduates / underemployed talent to attend events / conferences / and free training would boost their prospects enormously. Taking a short ‘business awareness’ workshop could be a prerequisite for getting the grant. The recruitment process needn’t be onerous or bureaucratic – one might simply appoint a panel of business people who would be asked to anonymously visit the June graduation shows in pairs, to quietly (and without being “chatted up”, and with each other acting as a moderator) collect the details of those who would be invited to apply for a one-year travel pass on graduation. And the passes need not cost the taxpayer – it’s little skin off the nose of the transport firms to nationally offer a few hundred such people a spare seat for free outside of the morning rush-hour. The events industry could also come on board here and offer “£5 tickets” to those who quality for the travel pass.

    In another post you write:-

    “It’s more difficult than it should be [for digime employers] to find good, new talent (by which we almost overwhelmingly mean recent graduates)”

    By which they probably mean “young”. Do you think part of their problem might by solved by getting over the “young, pretty, and cheap” hiring bias that appears to be ingrained into large sections of the industry?

    • Thanks for the comment David: it would be someone with a clear mission and probably spending as much time pitching to the talent base as the employers and other stakeholders. To be frank, codes of conduct are a waste of time – the concept of paying undergraduates is transformational because with the right talent and project management there will be real commercial benefits for businesses, and that’s where efforts are better spent than months on a code that’s purely voluntary. Manchester Digital as a body succeeds in part because of the Big Chip awards, which have been running for more than ten years and stand out as one of the leading out-of-London events for digital – the Birmingham scene could do with something similar, but as you say it can be hard to overcome the Balkanisation factor. Your transport idea may have legs, but a Computer Science grad – of equal value to a digital agency as a Design grad – wouldn’t have a degree show. And proscribed business skills workshops for graduates can be tricky, at best, or disastrous, at worst, to execute – and that’s talking from experience! Better to look for the students and recent graduates already being entrepreneurial, give them more support, and see what critical mass will gather from there.

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