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Manchester Digital Skills Festival conference day: Key takeaways – a delegate’s view.

The Manchester Digital Skills Festival conference day, held in the heart of Manchester city centre, has been connecting Greater Manchester’s tech and digital sectors for over 11 years.

Engaging, Energetic and Empowering!

 The annual event isn’t the only opportunity but is one of the many digital events held in the North of England that allows the industry to get together and grow our tech talent.

From digital transformation companies such as GFT, to well-known brands such as Auto Trader and BAE Systems, through to universities, the Digital Skills Festival - conference day is the first day of the week-long celebration and appreciation of the tech industry. It offers a space where employers and job seekers can come together to discuss major tech topics such as seeking top talent, as well as showcasing the skills that the North has to offer.

 The skills event couldn’t have come at a better time, with the Digital Skills Audit recently being published, showing £532million being raised by Manchester-based tech companies – demonstrating that tech is here to stay in Manchester – but highlighting the need to get more new talent into tech and into the North. 

The conference started at 1pm with a seamless registration and finished with closing remarks at 5pm, allowing for a networking and drinks reception to take place afterwards.

The welcome introduction was given by Katie Gallagher (MD, Manchester Digital) and Angela Harrington (Director of Inclusive Economy, Manchester City Council) and was a great introduction and start to the event.  The event consisted of five thought-provoking topics around recruitment and talent in the north:

Unlocking Early Careers

Levelling up the North

The 2023 Digital Skills Audit  

Cost of Living Crisis

Bridging the Skills Gap

One of the key elements that really captivated my attention was how much Auto Trader have done in terms of unlocking early careers and retraining talent into tech. Both Sarah Brooks-Pearce (Future Talent Manager and Disability & Neurodiversity Network Lead) and Caroline Atherton (Early Careers Advisor) from Auto Trader really made me think, how we can all do more to not just lock talent in, but allow more diverse individuals to enter the tech industry without ‘barriers’?

If more companies, especially in tech, took more steps to put ‘people at the heart of the strategy’ as phrased by Sarah and Caroline it would encourage more people to get involved in tech sooner in their career path, which is something I know GFT is particularly focused on. 

 What are other companies doing to get more apprentices, graduates, and those re-training for the tech industry? Not only that, but what are companies doing to equip early career managers to create these Professional Development Plans and retain staff?

Invest in talent and talent stays!

Sean Allen couldn’t have said it better when he described the process within Auto Trader of being ‘years ahead’.

This led us nicely on to our first panel session hosted by the very energetic Michael Taylor (Editor,

What does ‘Levelling Up’ mean to you? For me it means being equal to my peers in London -luckily at GFT I’ve never felt ‘different’ from my London colleagues - but what does it mean in terms of the Manchester tech industry? 

Levelling up Panel Discussion

The panel spoke about a range of topics from mental wellbeing to whether requiring a university degree to join the tech industry is needed. For those of you thinking about whether going to university or doing a tech apprenticeship, the general consensus was no, one does not need to go to university to enjoy the rewards of being tech talent. However, university isn’t just about learning, it’s also about soft skills and broadening your horizons amongst a diverse amount of people.  

Apprenticeship programmes can provide an ideal way of getting into the tech industry, but must be combined with other non-learning aspects of the role and diverse social interactions to ensure young people are able to broaden their horizons. 

The main takeaway was how hybrid working has allowed us to level up quicker than expected with more individuals able to work remotely. Whilst this does allow access to a wider pool of talent across the north and the whole of the UK, it does mean having to travel into locations further away for team days, training and other social interactions – not everything can be achieved on a Zoom call!

After reconvening from a short but highly sugary and necessary ‘cake break’ we ran through the skills audit, nicely leading on from the topics previously discussed by the panel.   

Tom Amies-Cull (Global COO, Dentsu Aegis Network) and Alison Ross (Platform & Operations and People Director, Auto Trader) left the audience wanting more. Luckily we’d been able to grab a copy of the skills audit (and for those unable to attend the event, the report is free to download on the Manchester Digital website).

The audit is a fantastic read and I’d highly recommend it, especially for those looking to see what the future holds, including key trends and what the tail end of the pandemic meant for the tech industry in 2022. 

Our final panel was led by the very knowledgeable and curious Sherell Fairweather (Digital Strategy Lead, Manchester City Council), who is a fantastic role model for young females in tech!

The panel was asked for their thoughts on the cost-of-living crisis, as well as tackling the skills gap, and what this means for the future of tech talent.

I want to ask you as a reader – what do you think companies should do in these challenging times, with the lack of skilled talent but a looming possibility of a slowdown in the economy?  

I know this is one area that GFT is looking into and it is a hot topic in our Employee Engagement Forum – which was created to cover wider issues such as the cost of living crisis.

To round off our first day at the Manchester Digital Festival, Tom Cheesewright (Applied Futurist) ran through how we can be more strategic in understanding what the future holds for tech. As we all know, tech isn’t some craze that will fade away, it’s something we will have to adapt to and work with in the future. One question posed to Tom was ‘What should I teach my kids to prepare them for the future?’ I know this would be a question I’d ask myself and is something I do wonder for my own niece and nephews.  

Tech to me is the new ‘Doctor’. It’s the profession that will be as essential and needed just as we need those in the medical profession.

The Manchester Digital Skills Festival Conference Day was the place to be for tech talent in the North and I would highly recommend you attending next year if you couldn’t make it this time.

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