Developing a new digital future

Digital skills have become vital as businesses look to meet the challenges of the coronavirus crisis. So it was fitting that developing an inclusive digital future was the focus of our first ever online roundtable, held in conjunction with the Lancashire Digital Skills Partnership and UCLan’s Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise

How has coronavirus impacted our current
skill needs and working practices?

KH: This is a pivot point for the country. We’ve never really had the push or need to use a lot of the digital skills and tools we have. Now we are being forced into a situation where we must use them.

We need to get used to people working remotely and to embrace those skills through online learning, webinars and through interaction on platforms such as Zoom.

When we come out of the other side of this, we need to keep the momentum going. The workforce is already on a steep learning curve and that is going to continue.

PRESENT:

  • Richard Slater, Lancashire Business View (chair)
  • Deyrick Allen, IOT Horizon
  • Zoe Dyson, Intequal
  • Mark Edwards, Seriun
  • Kerry Harrison, Lancashire Digital Skills Partnership (LDSP)
  • Simon Iredale, Motionlab
  • Ann Jordan, Lancashire Enterprise Partnership/Benetimo
  • Michael Lough, Blue Wren
  • Alan O’Donohoe, EXA Foundation
  • Yvonne Rennison-Stone, UCLan
  • Tom Stables, Digital Lancashire/3ManFactory
  • Adrian Wright, UCLan

ME: Half of our customer base was ready and prepped for this and had embraced the digital change. They were already using technologies for flexible working. The other half rang up and said, ‘I now need to work from home’.

The situation has highlighted very clearly the digital skills gap that exists in certain people.

The ones embracing it are already talking about what’s going to happen afterwards and how  they can continue to progress.

AW: Digital businesses, like many others, are dependent on networks and establishing relationships and how do those relationships exist without physical contact? It’s done online but we have to respond and adapt to a new way of developing relationships and networks to enable our businesses to grow.

TS: We’ve been forced into realising the value of digital. When it comes to digital skills, we have to remember for a lot of people these are new skills that haven’t been around for long. When it comes to the workforce and digital skills, one of the challenges is that employers don’t really know what they need. They don’t know what questions to ask or what to look for.

DA: It is about communication. You’ve got a lot of people working from home who can’t physically see their factory, who can’t see if it’s being productive, they can’t see how it’s running. We spend a lot of time educating manufacturers on how they connect to these digital assets – not just people but also their physical assets.

AJ: Digital transformation is a huge growth opportunity for the sector. Somebody needs to work quickly to bring digital signposting together, so people know where to go for information. In the companies I talk to the big problem has been ‘where do we start?’ Now is the time to run a digital transformation campaign.

KH: What we’re trying to do with the Digital Skills Partnership is to be that first port of call to enable us to signpost. I would hope that we could build the partnership into that and part of it would be signposting to the universities.

YR: Universities play a massive part in terms of support for SMEs and the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes they offer.

It’s quite difficult to write a curriculum for skills that are required in three, five years’ time.

However, we might have a sense now, given this crisis, of what might be required. We need to work closer with employers and businesses but we now have an insight into the future, because the future’s been brought to us now.

ML: My children are adapting really quickly to remote learning and they’ve responded well. Using digital tools is going to become second nature as they grow up, it will be a natural progression.

ME: A lot of the skills gap is generational. People already using Facebook, apps on phones and things like that have moved into solutions very easily. Our workload is coming from a different generation who have to retrain themselves.

KH: Our research highlights that there’s a generation gap and that there tends to be a lack of confidence in adapting and using digital skills the older you are. Lancashire’s digital workforce is also ageing and that’s a problem.

AO: Some people are trying to replace what they normally do and just do it online. However, working online is very different. You can’t just simply think, ‘We’ll just do it in Zoom and it’ll work fine.’

There’s a generation gap and that there tends to be a lack of confidence in adapting and using digital skills the older you are

I run lots of face-to-face events. I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to be straightforward, we’ll just do it online’. I’m actually finding it a real tussle because I’m so used to working in certain ways when I am out of the house. I’m having to reconsider; do I have the skill? You need to adapt.

SI: We’ve had people working from home since I started the business in 2004 so we’ve always had a work from home mentality.

The only reason we actually have an office is we enjoy the community aspect; we actually enjoy being there with each other.

If anything, the work we’ve been doing since everyone became home-based has increased because everybody’s incredibly focused and not getting distracted.

That is why I’m a massive advocate of home working. It’s something everybody should be doing. The logic that we’re polluting the skies by jumping in the car and driving 30 miles to go to work, to work on a computer, to drive 30 miles back again, is nonsensical.

ZD: We’ve always worked virtually, so we’ve been able to continue delivering our skills solutions around apprenticeships. It is very much business as usual for us. I do think more organisations are going to have to make this shift change. It works.

AW: As we go through the isolation process, loneliness at work will become more apparent.

Keeping in touch regularly with the people you are working with, keeping up social relations and making sure you keep in contact with your employees is important.

YR: Strong leadership is required. Businesses are adapting very quickly to people working at home but some leaders may be finding this a difficult time. Getting support for leaders in all sectors is fundamental.

Having structure is also important. It is good leadership to say, ‘We all need to have a structure, we all need to connect with each other’.

Figures show we are not attracting as many young people and women into the digital sector in Lancashire. How do we make it more inclusive?

KH: A Tech Nation survey of young people a few years ago included comments from young women saying, ‘People like me don’t do jobs like that.’ We have to work on busting some myths about digital.

We’ve got to help everybody in the wider community understand that digital roles can be for them because in the future they’re going to be for everybody. You won’t be able to get away from it.

TS: The challenge we have is some people don’t regard what they do as being digital when it clearly is.

At Digital Lancashire we have the Women in Tech group, which isn’t exclusively for women, but is really to push the agenda that digital and technology is for everyone. It’s giving people the environment to feel more comfortable to learn about that.

You can’t just simply think, ‘We’ll just do it in Zoom and it’ll work fine’

ZD: We are doing a lot with schools to educate people on what digital looks like and what a career can look like for men and women. We’re trying to do more of that because we still hear people say, ‘Why would I want to go and have a job in tech?’ or ‘It’s mainly for men’.

AJ: It’s about focus and the only way that we can change the figures is by having targeted transformational plans to make it happen.

You have to keep working at it. We have to try to soften the word ‘digital’ because all of our businesses have got a digital facet. We also need to focus on young people.

DA: My head of sales is 21 and is quite brilliant. She is the future of the company but regularly goes into meetings made up of men aged over 50. It is very daunting and I’ve had to support her and help with her confidence.

SI: I’m pleased that many people are now saying, ‘Can we drop this word digital?’ It’s something I’ve said for a long time needs to happen.

When it comes to building apps, websites or software the number of female applications that we have received for the roles has been incredibly low.

However, we’ve been working with a Manchester company that runs bootcamps called Code Nation. It says the number of females coming into web, app and software development and cyber security is incredibly encouraging.

KH: One of the projects that the Fast Track Digital Fund has been working on is that bootcamp-style approach to learning. Where we’ve started to think about removing barriers to females applying to courses, we’re getting some amazing numbers. Keep an eye out for the ‘Fast Track’ projects that are coming out.

AW: It’s about making sure all individuals have the right skills and in terms of younger people we keep the talent in Lancashire. Stopping the ‘brain drain’ is really important.

ME: Out of every 100 CVs we get, only three of them are female, which is disappointing. We see a lot of our technology and digital workforce aspiring to work in the city. They use Lancashire as their stepping stone to working in Manchester or Leeds or London. Our biggest challenge is retaining people.

TS: Young people and apprentices are often seen as the fix, the ‘shiny things’ who are going to bring in the know-how. Although there is a degree of truth in that, sometimes it’s about transforming the whole business and upskilling everyone to bring them up to speed so that digital becomes part of everybody’s role.

ML: When you are problem solving you don’t necessarily need a very technical background. You just need to understand what the problem is and the tools needed to solve it.

Writing code is going to become more commoditised, it will become much easier. We’re already offshoring it to a large degree. AI and machine learning will actually make the role more obsolete.

That clever, problem-solving skill; identifying a challenge a customer might have and then interpreting and customising a solution to match and overcome it, is going to be far more important.

YR: Role models for young girls are so important. We need more female role models to blog, to be part of recruitment campaigns, to be visible.

AO: It is about perceptions. I knew a girl who I thought needed to go off and do a degree in computer science. Her analytical skills and problem solving were amazing. She said she’d love to, but her parents wanted her to pursue a career in medicine and computer science wasn’t going to help with that.

Everybody’s got their part to play, it’s not just about changing the perceptions of girls, it’s about their family members, parents and peers.

KH: A lot of females suffer from ‘Imposter Syndrome’ because they’re in an environment where they are often very much in the minority and struggle with confidence. That is something we need to address.

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