Business debate: Closing the digital skills gap in Derbyshire

Digital skills have been identified as a priority to support economic growth in Chesterfield and North Derbyshire. Locally, however, there is a skills gap and business leaders and education and skills providers are being urged to work together to ensure school leavers acquire the digital skills required by business.

By Anna Melton
Monday, 28th February 2022, 12:54 pm
The discussion was held remotely over video conferencing
The discussion was held remotely over video conferencing

Held remotely via Zoom and organised by Destination Chesterfield in conjunction with the Derbyshire Times, this month’s round table brought together key figures from the town’s digital sector to discuss how education and business can better collaborate to ensure that Chesterfield and its school leavers benefit from the digital revolution in 2022 and beyond.

Taking part were:

JM – Josh Marsh – Destination Chesterfield Coordinator (Chair)

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AM – Anna Melton – Director, In the Works PR

AR – Amy Revell – Co-Founder and Director, We Are Spaces

BA – Bill Allard – Director, Transmitta Ltd

DB – Diane Beresford – Deputy Chief Executive, East Midlands Chamber (Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire)

PD – Paul Deakin – Founder and Director, Oasis Studio

TP – Tracy Powell – Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing, University of Derby

Are young people leaving education with the right digital and IT skills for businesses?

TP – It is very hard to keep up-to-date with specific apps and programmes because of the rapid pace within the digital sector. Often, by the time a student has finished their degree, the technology has changed. On that basis, we tend to teach students the fundamentals of marketing and what works in business, as this can be applied across the board.

BA – It’s really difficult, from an education point of view, to teach everything, you just can’t.

AR – In terms of software, young people have great knowledge, however they lack the understanding of how software can be integrated into a role to meet the business’ needs.

BA – Young people are IT savvy but often lack the real-world skills to ensure the technology meets the needs of the users.

DB – I agree. Using a young person with no business experience to develop a commercial website for instance may be very cost effective, but the website may not be consumer friendly.

AM - Young people definitely have more digital skills but I wonder whether these have been developed at the expense of learning other communication skills. I’ll often get applications and emails w written in text speak with lots of mistakes. I would not want that person to manage my business’ social media accounts or website.

TP - I run three modules and they all work with businesses, allowing students to run organisations’ Twitter pages and really understand the importance of grammar and communication.

BA – We have young people that write into us just expecting a job and to go straight out on a national tour with a band doing stadiums – that’s not going to happen. Even the way they approach us, with badly worded emails and poor grammar, reflects poorly on them as an individual.

TP - We spend an awful lot of time trying to engage our undergraduates in how to get a job, writing a covering letter and how to address people politely. We are there as a signposting facilitator into how they become independent learners.

AM – A lot of businesses will want a young person to handle their social media because they are tech savvy overlooking fact this is a really important communications tool and needs someone who not only has the digital skills but also the business skills to manage it correctly. Only hands-on experience can deliver those real-world skills.

PD - I think that connection with industry is really missing in the college and university environment. We’ve started conversations with Chesterfield College and they want to connect with companies like ours to help their students understand what business is.

TP - We really encourage students to take a placement year and find that those that do, understand the importance of real-world skills. We’re doing as much as we can, and we do talk about real-world skills from right at the start of the course.

DB - The Chamber has secured just over 3,000 Kickstart placements across the region and we’ve seen an upturn in the number of businesses who want to take a digital placement. Many of the businesses we’ve talked to are using a Kickstart placement to justify a permanent digital role in the business.

PD – We took on a Kickstart placement and he is now a full-time employee and a great asset to the team, and we are currently advertising for another. Yes, there are challenges, but it’s a great way to have some testing ground and try and find our next employee.

How much is new technology playing a part in business locally and how important is it that our local businesses keep up with the latest digital trends?

BA – In some organisations the IT department will just end up using the same technologies for years, even when they explain to their colleagues that they’re falling behind competitors.

TP – A lot of the businesses we speak to are desperate to increase their digital capabilities. Businesses do realise how important it is, but they just don’t have the staff to do that.

AR – I think confidence is a massive part of this, because people have these ideas but don’t have the confidence to put things forward and push new technologies into a business which can make it more efficient. This might be because businesses aren’t aware of these new technologies, so I think there is a gap for an educational piece there.

DB – It’s crucial for businesses to keep up-to-date with what’s going on, and we do see a significant number of local businesses in Chesterfield attending the digital growth programme workshops. We have the digital upscaler programme where we can provide up to £50,000 grant funding to businesses and we’ve seen some fantastic examples of businesses investing in new technology that can change how they do business.

PD – It’s absolutely important for businesses to move forward with technology and those that don’t will eventually fade away.

DB – At the start of the pandemic businesses had to move very quickly online. My concern now is that they don’t really have the systems to move as quickly as they did and keep up the pace.

We’re seeing a greater reliance on technology with hybrid working models becoming more popular, but how important is having a shared space to bring people together and work collaboratively in person?

AR – I don’t like working from home. I’m not as motivated or inspired. I think that having that shared space where people can come together and collaborate in person is crucial and, until it’s not there, people won’t realise just how important it is.

AM – I think bringing people together in person is incredibly important. My own team became less upbeat and inspired when we worked from home seven days a week at the height of the pandemic. Now we’re back in the office, we can bounce ideas off each other. It makes a huge difference.

PD – Having a physical space is really important for the longevity of a creative company, you need to collaborate and talk to each other.

BA – The ‘water cooler moments’ are so important. Those conversations trigger other bits of information and help generate ideas. You can ask questions through an online environment but that tends to be more direct.

DB - The Chamber has just over 190 staff across three cities and we’ve moved to a hybrid working model, however, we’re still going into the office for those collaborative moments.

TP – The students want to be present on campus. A lot of them have struggled with the online learning and they’re much more comfortable to speak up in class and engage, chatting with their friends and learning in person.

AR – Major cities have digital and technology quarters, where businesses in that field tend to cluster. It’s a space where businesses can also go for support and share ideas.

AM – A digital quarter in Chesterfield could be a consideration for all the office space coming out of the ground. There are a number of digital businesses scattered in and around the town but nothing really connecting them.

AR – We are looking to see if there are any possibilities to get a project like that off the ground so we can provide people with that space to try new things and be excited about innovating.

Destination Chesterfield is part funded by contributions from local businesses, Chesterfield Borough Council and the European Regional Development Fund. The project is helping to improve the economic prosperity of the town through a campaign to promote Chesterfield. 

The local business community plays a central role in its success by both leading an independent board of Directors for Destination Chesterfield, as well as businesses pledging their support to become Chesterfield Champions.

For more information about becoming a Chesterfield Champion, visit http://www.chesterfield.co.uk/destination-chesterfield/champions/sign-up/