Mark Casci: Digital skills are vital and we can’t leave anyone behind

Some of the experts from Google's Digital Garage team in Sheffield.
Some of the experts from Google's Digital Garage team in Sheffield.
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The pages of The Yorkshire Post’s business supplements have been filled with stories in recent years documenting in detail the phenomenal rise in the tech sector we have seen in the region.

Throughout Yorkshire, firms are falling over themselves to attract as much talent as possible, many offering considerable incentives to graduates simply to turn up to interviews, such is the thirst for skilled new staff.

The Sheffield Google Digital Garage.

The Sheffield Google Digital Garage.

A recent study by the British Chamber of Commerce showed that as much as three out of every four businesses reported a shortage of digital skills in the workplace.

Nearly one in three said digital shortcomings in their businesses were causing them to struggle to fulfil customer requirements with 29 per cent saying their operating costs were higher due to a shortage of skills.

The vast majority of people reading this column, regardless of their profession, will unquestionably have had to have learned new technological skills as part of their career development and will only continue to do so.

And while the benefits to our companies and economy from tech are legion, there are also social challenges that come with them.

Date: 20th June 2016, Picture James Hardisty.
Launch of Digital City with SkyBet, at Yorkshire Post Newspapers, Leeds. Pictured Labour councillor James Lewis, and Stuart Clarke, Festival Director of Leeds Digital Festival.

Date: 20th June 2016, Picture James Hardisty. Launch of Digital City with SkyBet, at Yorkshire Post Newspapers, Leeds. Pictured Labour councillor James Lewis, and Stuart Clarke, Festival Director of Leeds Digital Festival.

One of the key things we learned about ourselves as a country during the run-up to, and the fall-out from, the EU referendum was that a large part of our society, old and young, university educated and not, male and female, were feeling left behind. With the pace of automation speeding up at a seemingly phenomenal rate, the crucial thing is how we keep updating the skill set of our workforces. Fortunately for us there is much good work going on to address this already, both from inside and outside the region.

I take my hat off to internet search giant Google for its excellent work in Sheffield and around the region.

Its Digital Garage project is helping everyone from pensioners to students to medium sized corporations to improve their digital skills.

When I interviewed its UK managing director Ronan Harris earlier this year he was adamantly clear that the Digital Garage was not a part of Google’s corporate and social responsibility programme but rather a concerted effort to make sure individuals from both inside and outside the corporation had the knowledge to be part of the digital world, something that would benefit his firm and bolster the economy.

On a more macro level events like the Leeds Digital Festival help shine an important spotlight on the strong work being done in the city to enhance its tech economy. In today’s Business Tuesday its director Stuart Clarke tells my colleague Ismail Mulla about the awesome impact that apprenticeship schemes from the likes of NHS Digital are having on the city in terms of bringing new digital talent to the region.

However he also offers the following sobering reminder on skills: “Every single tech company you speak to says one of their biggest issues is making sure that they have enough talent in the pipeline to fill any gaps that they might have.”

It is clear that we have the dawning of one of the most exciting chapters in our economy’s history underway in Yorkshire.

However this must be a digital future which involves us all and it is a journey which should begin in infancy. My daughter, aged three-and-a-half, navigates her way through my iPad with greater proficiency than I. But it also should be part of hers, and all children’s education.

I would submit that coding should be as fundamental a requirement for young people as English and mathematics. Were we to impose this requirement we would send a huge message to the world about our position as a nation and an economy, one which is forward thinking and modern. Who knows it might even silence some of the Brexit navel-gazing and doom mongering.

Paula Dillon, President of Leeds Chamber Commerce.

New Chamber of Commerce boss Dillon calls for far more women in STEM jobs