A revolutionary scheme is underway in the region to bridge digital skills gaps and create the next generation of technology entrepreneurs.
Businesses and education providers have teamed up to carry out a study on the potential for a new incubation studio that would tackle vital skills shortages in emerging technology sectors, such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).
Gateshead College has secured £30,000 of funding for the project, which also involves Keighley College, Cumbria University, ESPA, Creative & Cultural Skills, North East-based tech firms, Sunderland Software City, Spearhead Interactive and PROTO: The Emerging Technology Centre, a soon-to-be launched research and development facility for emerging technology and digital innovation.
Together these organisations will investigate current skills gaps in the creative tech industries and how they could be bridged by a pipeline of new talent.
Funded by the Education and Training Foundation and managed by the Association of Colleges (AoC), the project will also seek to provide meaningful work placements for young people, including those with autism, who have traditionally found it difficult to secure placements in local digital firms. Students would take on commissions from companies to give them valuable experience of finding solutions to real-life digital industry challenges, as well as gaining key employability skills such as how to work effectively as part of a team.
Alex Cook, innovation manager at PROTO, said: “Businesses across all sectors, not just the digital industry, are seeking to capitalise on the potential of emerging technologies so it’s vital they have the skills to achieve this goal. This multi-partner project will explore different ways of helping industry to plug skills gaps and become more productive, whilst providing opportunities for young people to get the experience and skills they need to work in the sector.”
The feasibility study will be conducted and the findings analysed during the next few months. The aim is to come up with a firm plan of action by early next year, with the possibility of having the incubation unit operational at Gateshead College by the start of the 2019-20 academic year. If the model proves effective, it could be rolled out in other parts of the country.
A rise in the number of tech companies has fuelled demand for digital skills in the region. According to a recent report by accountancy firm RSM, the North East saw a 78% increase in digital start-ups in 2017. The North East tech sector is worth almost £1bn, according to a separate report from Tech Nation, with the sector growing 2.6 times as fast as the rest of the economy.
To cater for this demand, Gateshead College works closely with employers in the sector to build the digital skills they need both now and in the future. This approach is extended to other sectors, such as engineering, automotive and construction, which rely on digital technology to grow and prosper.
The college runs several courses across the technology spectrum, spanning subjects such as virtual reality, gaming, media, television and film production. Through these programmes, hundreds of students have completed work experience placements within the sector which have enabled them to get a job, while others have gone on to launch a successful business.
Simon Underhill, curriculum operations manager at Gateshead College, said: “We’re playing a major role in an innovative project that could shape the digital skills agenda in the North East and beyond. It will give students a supportive environment in which to develop the professional competencies and technical skills needed by digital firms to drive their business forward.
“Gateshead College is at the forefront of the digital technology revolution, helping employers to build a digital skills base that meets their immediate and future business needs.”
The incubator project is part of the Education and Training Foundation’s Outstanding Teaching, Learning and Assessment (OTLA) programme, delivered by AoC. OTLA aims to promote and enhance the quality of teaching, learning and assessment in post-16 education and training. It also aims to support the development of teaching practice and strengthen links with employers to ensure students on technical courses get the skills they need to benefit businesses.
The incubator project could also provide a vehicle for the delivery of the new digital T-levels announced by the Government last year. With the course content shaped by industry experts, the T-levels will start being delivered from 2020 and are an attempt by ministers to put technical education on an equal footing to academic qualifications.