Bridging the digital skills gap

A pilot project to train young people in cutting-edge skills has been launched in Lancashire as part of an innovative strategy to fuel growth in the county’s multi-million pound creative and digital economy.

Digital Advantage is offering around 200 young people the kind of skills which are rarely taught in local schools and colleges but are highly-prized by local employers.

It’s the first time the pioneering initiative - which encourages students to compete for a £2,000 prize by developing an actual digital product or service – has been introduced outside Manchester.

Employers and industry experts from across the creative and digital sector in Lancashire have been asked to lend their support though masterclasses, mentoring, sponsorship and to offer the Digital Advantage graduates job interviews for new apprentice positions.

The creative economy in Lancashire is dominated by digital, creative, software and computer science businesses. It employs 36,000 people and is worth £1.3bn in GVA.

Yet 57 per cent of fast- growing businesses in a recent survey said they struggled to find technically capable staff with advanced IT or software skills. Provision of computer sciences at higher-education level also lags behind the national average.

The Lancashire Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is investing in addressing this digital skills gap as part of its strategy to transform the county’s economy over the next decade, creating 50,000 new jobs and driving economic growth.

Altogether, the LEP has invested £30m of capital to create hundreds of new training places to provide the skilled workforce that employers in seven key economic sectors – such as the creative and digital economy - say they need for business growth.

Digital initiatives the LEP has supported include helping fund Edge Hill University’s new Technology Hub, which opened in October last year. It includes the UK’s first super immersive 3D virtual environment in a university.

It has also invested in the Microsoft Digital Academy at Accrington and Rossendale College, which also launched last year.

The LEP is now funding Digital Advantage in schools and colleges in Blackburn, Blackpool, Burnley, Chorley, Haslingden, Morecambe, Nelson, Preston, Leyland and Skelmersdale

The ground-breaking initiative is a Pop-Up Digital Agency delivered by The White Room and supported by Digital Lancashire. It offers 16-18 year olds 24 hours of work experience and training in specialist, practical digital skills with a further 24 hours of guided support.

Participants get help to develop and plan their own digital business start-up. In the style of the BBC’s Dragons Den, they will pitch their digital product or service to an industry panel, with the best winning the funds to start up a business.

Industry experts including Dom Williams, formerly of Fat Media, Simon Calderbank from Big Knows, Anne Williamson from Lucrative Marketing, together with Ezra Rushen from The White Room, are helping teach students.

Lisa Moizer, the LEP’s skills and employment hub manager, says: “We already have many world class digital businesses here in Lancashire and there is huge growth potential in the sector.

“The pace of technological change makes it difficult for schools and colleges to keep up-to-date, so there aren't enough people leaving education with the digital skills employers need.

“We are creating a pipeline of students and graduates with cutting-edge creative and digital skills and, at the same time, improving their employability and life chances.

“Young people already taking part in Digital Advantage are enjoying it immensely and learning a huge amount. All we need now is more industry leaders prepared to pass on their knowledge and offer interviews to the graduates of Digital Advantage. “

Andy Lovatt, founder and managing director of The White Room, says: “Schools and colleges have really bought into the concept and the young people are already coming up with some great business ideas.

There are some real stars in the making and Lancashire employers should already be thinking about how they get these talented young people into the workforce by creating apprentice positions.“

Stewart Townsend, managing director of Digital Lancashire, adds: “Digital Advantage will bring a skills advantage to businesses in Lancashire due to the nature of digital rapidly changing. They will now have access to 200 pupils with real time digital skills for the now economy, who can walk into any business and be an enhancement from day one.”

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