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.