Tag Archives: traineeships

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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i.studio – getting the best trainees and web companies together

My job’s being packed up in a few weeks, but for the time being I’m still “Mr Placements”. What does that mean? Have a video!

In 2008 I was asked to suggest solutions to the skills gap that many web and mobile sector employers were observing both in the North West, and nationally. Reports and comment from NESTA, Manchester Digital, Manchester Digital Development Agency, BIMA, CIDS, Chinwag and more all hit on two things:

  • It’s more difficult than it should be to find good, new talent (by which we almost overwhelmingly mean recent graduates)
  • Once a business hires new talent that looks to have potential, there’s too much time and resource used before their input equals or exceeds their salary and overheads

Knowing from experience that work-based training was the most reliable answer to the problems, I put together a Project Brief for what then became known as i.studio: I was aiming for 20 6-month long traineeships with companies working in web, mobile, interactive and digital marketing. I mined a lot of research, and then spoke to employers in the region to get a feel for the final format, and went live trying to find digital agencies of assorted types and sizes in the North West who might work well with a bona fide Traineeship.

Finding (and listening to) companies

Never, ever hide behind emails – I did do some mailing out, and a small press release was arranged for the likes of How Do and Manchester Digital, but the real results were from getting on the phone. Rather than pay for data lists, I went over existing partners and contacts, and sought suggestions and recommendations from colleagues. I even went over the last 2-3 years’ worth of Big Chip nominees! Across 2008 and 2009 17 traineeships were secured, but looking at my lists I had varying degrees of contact with a good 40 to 50 businesses.

The big challenge – I wasn’t selling a service, I was seeking out partners. If the partnership could work, everyone was happy – the company would get a ready, willing and able pair of hands in their team, the trainee would find a good development environment, and we’d have a positive outcome. It was a tough sell only overcome by my being able to stress the likely benefits, without underplaying the Ts and Cs and requirements – some MD’s get a little flustered when you’re required to ask for their Health & Safety policy. Companies and individuals varied, so it was always best to meet up, focusing on commercial, creative, technical or skills issues based on what would influence decision makers in each situation. The best result would be an agreed Trainee role, fully fleshed out as a 2-page profile promoting the company, what they’d like a trainee to do, and what the trainee could gain by coming on board.

Finding trainees

The digital SME sector isn’t visible to many graduates – especially those coming from schools of computing or faculties of science, where a culture still prevails of guiding students to careers with the traditional tech multinationals and blue-chips (where opportunities are declining). Which is a shame, as strong coding discipline and a proper foundation in object oriented programming are in huge demand within the web, digital and mobile SME sector (where opportunities are still growing).

Many companies I spoke to asssumed I’d have trainees “on our books” –  I didn’t, and once they learned that, they were more likely to engage with i.studio. For every traineeship across web, games, broadcast and film I arranged for Vision+Media (easily past 100 by now), I recruited from scratch. Recent graduates and other entry level talent are a transient group to the point that mailing lists and databases would be a waste of time. Instead, I got results in the following places and through the following methods:

  • The soft launch: before I had companies committed and roles defined to apply for, individuals were encouraged to send their CVs in to a project-specific email (another way of reinforcing the opportunity’s brand) which gave me the chance to look at their CV to see if they were broadly eligible, and filter out those who really wanted to work in TV, or games, or just didn’t have a baseline of specific skills appropriate to the project.
  • The handmade HE (mega) mailing list: I’ve known of organisations and employers that talk of their “University links” which amount to emailing the careers service or jobshop at the Uni in question every now and again and crossing their fingers. FAIL. I mined every potentially relevant faculty, school and department website for Universities in the region for tutor and lecturer email addresses, plus careers services, and just by priming them with updates on the opportunity small but valuable relationships were built: the tutors stood a greater chance of being listened to by their recent students than we would spending money on large-scale marketing. Checking opportunity pages on Google Analytics, direct email links were often the largest source of inbound traffic.
  • Free, but invaluable, jobs portals: Prospects Net, a national HEFCE-funded network proved to be invaluable in backfilling the space between academics and careers jobshops, and their online recruitment portal included statistics on which universitites had approved your posting – providing the chance to nag them on the phone! – and spot trends. Liverpool University, for example, was doing a good job in keeping third year students and recent graduates up to date, and I met some strong candidates who were wise enough to take advantage of optional units in iPhone / Mac app development, which were tougher to take on than other units open to them. On the grassroots level, GeekUp, a developer community with its own free jobs portal, and Google group, also proved valuable, and encouraged me over time to use Twitter as another resource – although this time around it was an add-on, I’d want to be using social networks more strategically in the future.

In Three Parts

I’ve glossed over the detail of doing this: I sat through hours of panel interviews, drove and rode the train all over the region, and have lever arch folders a-plenty, and learned a lot about marketing for talent, however the biggest thoughts I came away with are:

  • Students are largely ignorant of the digital SME landscape, and the huge opportunities it can represent. It’s not necessarily their fault, nor an indicator of their talent or intelligence: cultures on campus don’t encourage them to seek out or talk to those businesses, and the milk round (a revenue stream for universities, remember) seems like the only type of contact available.
  • The skills gap is more complicated than a perceived decline in the quality of web design / development degrees. Digital sector SMEs, when you grill them about it, don’t necessarily know how to recruit for good, new talent, in a way that isn’t resource-intensive. It only costs time to attend degree shows, or to give talks to relevant groups of Year 2 students, but I was surprised by the number of companies happy to criticise HE without doing any of these things – they would just sit back and expect the speculatively submitted CVs and portfolios to represent the cream of the crop. While I may have been stupid to have said it so straightforwardly when I worked on a similar project with them, the BBC aren’t necessarily attractive as an employer brand to new talent in digital and tech, and may not be getting the top tier of talent they think they are – certainly an issue as their Future Media & Technology department will have a large presence at MediaCityUK in Salford.
  • Universities are a key resource – but you’ve got to know how to work with them. Businesses just need to think in terms of getting access to the students, imparting guidance; building their brand to attract talent to them. Track down the lecturers, respond to the ones who find you, and get out there. One good starting point? Pro Dev Day is a free event for web, mobile and digital marketing businesses and students to attend, run by Manchester Metropolitan University every November. I manned a stand for Vision+Media in 2008 and 2009 and on each event spoke to in excess of 200 students and recent graduates.

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