Digital Leaders North East ‘Salon’ #1 (13th February 2014)

This blog originally appeared on the Digital Leaders website on Wednesday 19th February 2014, provoking some strong support from a wide range of people on Twitter but also some negative reactions from people on the ‘North East Startups’ Facebook Group.

Comments were closed on the original blog (not my decision) but they’re open on here so please feel free to share your thoughts, ideas and suggestions below.

Digital Leaders North East

On Thursday 13th February, the very first Digital Leaders ‘Salon’ outside of London took place in a busy boardroom in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Organised by Gary Coyle of Escher Group, the purpose of this invite only gathering was to bring together 30 of the North East’s most influential, connected and passionate people to discuss ‘skills gaps’ and whether the region was ‘half full or half empty’.

Over the next 90 minutes, participants were encouraged to speak openly about the state of the region, highlighting any successes, problems and barriers to development and growth.

Under the Chatham House Rule, here is an overview of what was said minus the names of the people who said it.

Are there sufficient digital skills in the North East?

Probably not, although it depends on where you look and what you are measuring. There’s no doubt there are lots of highly skilled people in the region and some very successful, world-class businesses including Sage, the UK’s biggest software company with over 6 million customers worldwide.

There is also a very healthy start-up scene, particularly in Newcastle, with ignite100 (Europe’s first £1 million tech accelerator programme) due to open ‘Campus North’ – a 10,000 sq ft co-working and event space for the local digital community in June. Furthermore, the Adonis Report (April 2013) noted there were more tech start-ups here than anywhere else outside of London.

However, the wider population of the region does appear to be lacking basic and appropriate digital skills. There’s a clear disconnect between what children and students are being taught at school, college and university and the skills that are needed to get a job in the digital sector or to start a business. Local employers aren’t working closely enough with academic institutions to define what they need and it takes too long to change curriculum meaning it’s always out of date.

Indeed, one participant said that universities are guilty of “just educating students how to be graduates for jobs that don’t exist”. Another said she feels like a teacher rather than an employer as she regularly has to retrain recent graduates how to do basic skills for their job.

Another took this further by saying not only are graduates lacking the skills needed for existing jobs but are way behind when it comes to jobs of the future like drone pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers, 3D printer engineers and designers, Bitcoin miners and financial managers. ‘We need to stop playing catch up and get ahead of the game’.

However, at the lower end of the scale, it was said that in some of the most deprived parts of the North East, the main priority of teachers is simply to ensure that their children are properly fed!

Where are all the developers?

Like other parts of the country, the North East has a shortage of suitably skilled (and available) developers. One experienced CTO said that the situation was so bad that he regularly had to outsource development work to Romania which was likely to continue in the short term at least.

Even Sage, despite having an excellent work environment and rewards for its staff can’t seem to find and recruit experienced Ruby developers fast enough at the moment.

Others agreed, saying they often had problems filling job vacancies as some local developers were being too demanding.  In my personal experience, I’ve met many incredibly talented developers in the region but they’re either working for very large organisations (like Sage) or making a good living as a freelance developer and so aren’t interested in taking ‘a regular job’.

Digital Leaders Mind Map 13th Feb 2014
Digital Leaders mind map by Marianne Whitfield (Cobweb)

The Problem of Poor Perception

The North East is a fabulous place to live and work with an excellent quality of life for most of its inhabitants. However, it does appear to have an image problem in other parts of the country, particularly in London where key decision makers, politicians and the media seem to have little knowledge or interest in what goes on up here. TV shows like Geordie Shore are seen as incredibly damaging to Newcastle by reinforcing negative stereotypes that do little to encourage inward investment (apart from the stag dos and hen parties that arrive in their droves each weekend)!

The London-bias of our nation’s politicians and media is seen as a very real problem which means that North East businesses rarely get the full attention they deserve. Instead, there is too much focus on Tech City and the Silicon Roundabout area of London. For example, why do politicians say things like “We need another Google” when they should be saying “We need another Sage” – a great British success story with millions of customers worldwide that employs thousands of people in the UK and Ireland?

Locally, more could be done to celebrate our home grown successes with North East entrepreneurs and businesses held up as role models for people to look up to. This could help prevent the ‘brain drain’ down to London and help inspire more young people to stay for work or to start their own business. Other Northern cities like Liverpool and Manchester are much better at celebrating their industrial and cultural heritage with the latter using Peter Saville of Factory Records fame as Creative Director for the City of Manchester and the words ‘Original Modern’ to define itself. What could Newcastle do like this to inspire more local people?

High growth not high numbers

Instead of just focusing on start-ups, more should be done to enable existing businesses to develop and grow as these are the ones with the most potential to create jobs and wealth for the region. “We don’t need more graduate start-ups. We need more veterans with no hair or grey hair to start a business. Let’s flip the model” said one person.

Having spent 7yrs working for a local enterprise agency and 4yrs at Shell LiveWIRE, I would agree that there is probably too much focus on ‘young entrepreneurs’ (16-30yr olds) in this country and not enough support or funding for older people (over 30s) with the experience, knowledge, skills and networks they need to run a successful business.

Future Focus?

The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (NELEP) will soon publish its’ Strategic Economic Plan for the region which will outline ways to raise skills levels in the local population with a particular focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), help people back into employment and create new businesses and jobs. All attendees of Digital Leaders North East were encouraged to feed into this and work with NELEP in the future.

As with most roundtable debates, there’s a danger that people will just focus on the negatives rather than the positives. However, I’m pleased to say there was plenty of the latter to get excited about at this first Digital Leaders North East salon and I look forward to the next one in March.

The people in attendance were all clearly passionate about the region and keen to work together to make change for the better. There are a lot of exciting things already happening at a grassroots level without the involvement (or interference) of any official bodies and plenty of successful and well-established businesses for North Easterners to be proud of.

We now need to keep the conversations going, continue to collaborate with each other at every opportunity and turn positive words into actions. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below.

Paul Lancaster is a start-up & social media expert, blogger for Sage & author of the Small Business Marketing For Dummies book. Follow him on Twitter and Tweet your ideas to @lordlancaster

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