How the Tech Community in Leeds is Coming Together to Close the Digital Skills Gap

· Kirsty Allen · Business

Making tech accessible to all.

Ahead Partnership

From inspiring girls into tech to creating a digital inclusion blueprint, Leeds is making strides to close the digital skills gap.

According to government figures, over 80% of all jobs advertised in the UK now require digital skills. However, employers cite lack of talent as the single biggest factor holding back growth, with estimates suggesting that the digital skills gap costs the country’s economy as much as £63 billion a year in missed GDP. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and fast, which is why Leeds’ digital community is coming together to close the gap.

Setting the blueprint for digital inclusion

In order to close the skills gap, we have to focus on inclusion. The barriers to digital inclusion are often complex, linking to wider factors beyond lack of skills or access to a device. Leeds City Council’s 100% Digital team aims to help. One of their landmark projects is their Digital Health Hubs, which support digitally excluded individuals and communities, helping them to get online. What was once a local effort is now a blueprint for others – their acclaimed model is set to be replicated and adapted by other councils around the country.

“There’s no other team at city level anywhere close to this,” explained Leeds City Council’s Digital Inclusion Manager Jason Tutin. “We work with over 200 organisations, teams, settings and services across Leeds, and have brought over £2 million of external funding into the city to strengthen the digital inclusion infrastructure in communities to increase access, engagement and participation.” With £200,000 of funding for the next wave of development, the Health Hub model will be rolled out across the city over the next 18 months.

Meanwhile, Generation’s Leeds chapter is helping to address the tech skill shortage while supporting unemployed people back into work. By running free virtual bootcamps focused on in-demand roles, the charity equips people with the industry-specific skills and behaviours they need to succeed. There’s a big focus on diversity and helping underrepresented people get into tech – they provide laptops and WiFi to cohorts, as well as offering childcare support funding, which is often a barrier for people when it comes to full-time training.

While some organisations are still fixated on apprenticeships, grad schemes and junior tech pipelines, bootcamps can provide a route for older demographics who are looking to retrain and get into tech. “It’s interesting that bootcamps are getting more recognition from the government.” Jess Sewter, Partnerships Director at Generation, mused. “The DfE are funding lots of bootcamps as a viable way to address skills gap. It’s faster and more impactful because it’s such an intensive way to learn and it’s more job-focused.”

Inspiring the next generation

Many young people never even consider a career in tech, perhaps due to lack of understanding or misguided perceptions, so it’s essential to raise awareness before they have to make those all-important subject choices. Leeds-based not-for-profit Ahead Partnership is doing just that, launching their Growing Talent Digital initiative to inspire more young people to work in tech and digital. They’ve partnered with employers to improve workplace skills while helping to diversify the sector by working with underrepresented demographics.

“There’s a real community spirit around digital skills needs,” explained Ahead’s Head of Development, Megan Lipp. “There’s only going to be a need for more digital skills, so let’s think about how we increase the pipeline of young people. How do we get those hard to reach communities involved in our work?” By partnering with 20 education providers across the region as well as key businesses, Ahead has helped to inspire over 12,000 young people through a packed calendar of events, workshops, panels and workplace visits.

Similarly, Leeds City Council’s Future Talent Plan has been created to help people and businesses thrive. It all starts with education. By supporting and delivering high quality careers advice, young people are kept informed, inspired and qualified to access digital jobs across the city. One key event hosted by the Future Talent Plan is the annual Leeds Apprenticeship Recruitment Fair, which offers young people the chance to speak to more than one hundred employers and training providers about exciting apprenticeships across the city.

Leeds Trinity University is one of a long list of organisations that have pledged to the Future Talent Plan, setting out to boost student employability. As a career-led university, they’re helping to equip students with the skills they need to land a job after uni. One of their initiatives is the recently-launched Career Passport – a handy online platform to make it easy for students to track and record their employability skills and attributes. With access to the platform post-graduation, they can showcase their strengths to potential employers.

Getting more women into tech

Sky Get Into Tech

In order to bridge the skills gap, it’s crucial to support women and girls into tech. For a long time now, the tech sector has been male-dominated, to such an extent that significantly fewer women consider a career in the industry. Data from PwC found that only 27% of females would consider a tech career, compared to 61% of males. With women making up just over a quarter of the market, and only 5% of leadership positions, changing perceptions is key to closing the skills gap. Local organisations like She Does Digital and WILD are helping to do exactly that.

Ahead are making strides to inspire the next generation of women. Their annual GirlTech event helps girls aged 12-14 to explore careers in digital. Interactive workshops, led by the likes of local employers Netcompany, Leeds City Council and Asda let girls see first-hand what a career in tech involves, helping them to find a place for themselves within the sector. With over 40 female role models taking part on the day, it’s a fantastic opportunity for young women to broaden their understanding of the industry, while getting answers to any questions they may have.

Another Ahead initiative is the Women of the Future Event, which takes place every Spring. “We’ve got this group of girls who are really lacking in confidence,” explained Megan. “And we put them in contact with really strong female role models. We bring 45 students from social mobility backgrounds along to Wellington Place, as well as a range of female role models working in entry level and apprentice roles, all the way up to managing partner positions at law firms. It’s an interactive day where the girls receive coaching and mentoring.”

Another organisation helping encourage women into the industry is Sky, whose female-only Get into Tech course aims to even the scales. The 15-week bootcamp is a crash course in software development, covering everything from agile delivery to HTML and Python. It’s 100% free, virtual and designed to fit around busy lifestyles. The best part? You don’t need to have any previous experience or tech knowhow to get involved. With a mix of tutor-led learning and team projects, it’s a fantastic opportunity open to women of all walks of life.

Supporting career changers

Sky Coding Club

It’s estimated that by 2030, nine out of ten people in the UK will have to learn new skills in order to do their jobs. Initiatives helping people to retrain, upskill and switch careers can keep the talent pipeline flowing. The FutureGoals initiative, delivered by Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, offers career support and inspiration for people of all ages, while providing vital links between individuals and employers. Their work with career changers includes offering fully-funded adult training courses and one-to-one career support.

Similarly, in-house academies offer a great route into tech for career changers, while helping employers diversify their workforce. Infinity Works Part of Accenture’s successful academy nurtures people at the very beginning of their tech career into associate consultant roles within an 18-24 month timeframe, while paying them a full salary. Their Software Engineering Academy requires some previous coding knowledge, but their Product Analyst Academy is open to anyone with a passion for tech, a desire to learn and a can-do attitude.

One of the most accessible support networks for those looking to get into tech is Sky’s Coding Club, which is open to all and free to join. Launched by two graduates of Sky’s Get into Tech programme, the coding cub connects fledging developers with knowledgeable software engineers via a Slack channel and regular events. Coding can be hard when you’re starting out as you may not have a network of developers to lean on, so the coding club provides a way to bounce ideas, ask questions and lean on more experienced coders.

“We realised how many people have an interest in learning to code,” explained Coding Club co-founder Rachel Emsley. “But the number of spaces for the Get Into Tech courses were so limited. We saw it as an opportunity to support people who hadn’t been fortunate enough to get a place on the course. It can be hard to break into the tech industry, especially if you’re a newbie and you don’t know anyone. It’s hard to take the leap. So we put together a curriculum – it’s self-guided with free tutorials to get people to a certain level of skills.”

Working together to close the gap

Leeds Digital Festival

Leeds is already a UK-leading tech hub, home to more than 3,500 digital companies, and our tech scene’s holistic approach to training and development is a testament to all involved. By taking a collaborative approach and working in partnership with one another, businesses and education providers are nurturing potential talent all levels. This hard work is sure to pay off in the future as a robust skills pipeline will help to fuel innovation, attract businesses to the region and bolster our reputation as an ever-growing digital powerhouse.