skip navigation
skip mega-menu

Bringing business and government together to ensure digital skills are top of the agenda

Business leaders came together with Greater Manchester Combined Authority, Manchester City Council and the Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy Paul Scully to share knowledge and experiences around early tech talent and digital skills, as part of our wider Digital Skills Festival 2023. 

Manchester Digital works closely with both regional government and central government to help shape policy around digital skills. MD Katie Gallagher is part of the government’s Digital Skills Council, which brings together government and industry to together drive forward industry-led action to address challenges around digital skills, as part of the larger mission to develop the UK’s tech economy. 

The roundtable discussion looked at the innovative ways that tech companies in Greater Manchester are solving the digital skills gap and building strong, diverse talent pipelines, as well as the ongoing challenges that they are facing in 2023. 

A range of employers were invited to reflect the different approaches that different sizes and structures of businesses are taking, as well as representatives from education, GMCA and Manchester City Council. The discussion ranged from challenges around developing an early talent pathway and finding people with the right skills, to how ways of working have changed since the Covid pandemic, as well as the challenges of increasing diversity and inclusion within the tech industry. 

Digital and Tech Minister Paul Scully, who co-chairs the Digital Skills Council, joined the discussion virtually from his office at Whitehall, just before it was officially announced by the Government that digital policy will be covered by the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. 

Scully welcomed hearing the shared experiences of the challenges faced by Greater Manchester businesses in developing early talent pipelines and the ways in which they both recruit and retain their employees. 

He talked about how Manchester was at the heart of much innovation through history and looking to the future, and added, “It’s very close to my heart that we get some real results, and increase the number of vacancies in the tech industry and the wider tech ecosystem. 

“Manchester’s digital ecosystem is going from strength to strength, with 50% more funding last year than in 2021, and is one of the fastest growing tech hubs in Europe. We need to continue upskilling more people so they can benefit from Manchester’s thriving economy.” 

Phil Smith, who also co-chairs of the Government’s Digital Skills Council, kicked off the discussion by explaining how the newly-formed council had been doing some work around the language used within the tech industry, recruitment and apprenticeships. Language can be both a barrier for businesses looking at new pathways for early talent, as well as people coming into the industry from a variety of backgrounds. 

Scott Young, COO at Red Eye, confirmed that his business had indeed found the language and complex rules around apprenticeships and funding quite difficult to understand. He said: “Language can be a real barrier for early careers. It might make sense for the education sector but it doesn’t make sense for business. For example, we don’t really understand T-levels at the moment. We also need to change the perceptions of tech apprenticeships, as it’s still seen as a secondary choice, which it isn’t.”

In terms of encouraging people into the tech industry from non-STEM backgrounds, Tom Davies, CEO at Robiquity, explained, “Digital skills are not just about coding, which is typically the assumption. Digital requires more lateral thinking skills such as creativity and design, to help a business re-think its operations with digital in mind. As businesses, we need to broaden our thinking as to what makes a digital skill. 

“We’re not always after deep techies, we’re after rounded people. As long as they have the right aptitude and approach, we can upskill them. There’s no barrier but the willingness to learn. The more barriers we can lower, the better and more diverse our workforce will be.”

Alison Ross, operations and culture director at Auto Trader and chair of Manchester Digital, talked through their transformation as a technology business, as well as their approach to creating their own talent pathway and increasing diversity and inclusion within their tech teams. She explained, “We’ve come through a very big culture shift within our business to develop our own early talent pathway. Our developers now understand that they have to train our junior talent. You need to create that very supportive environment if you want to grow as a business. 

“We do employ graduates but that doesn’t solve the ongoing diversity and inclusion issues, so we now employ around 30-40% as apprentices, which helps increase our diversity.

“We are now seeing the fruits of that labour in that we have people that came to us as apprentices who are now running their own dev teams. We’re a big company and the only thing that was constraining our growth was being able to recruit enough developers.”

Hilary Stephenson, is the managing director at Nexer Digital and also sits on the Manchester board, talked through her experiences of recruiting as a small business. “We’ve had a huge challenge around hiring as we’ve just grown hugely due to the Covid pandemic and our headcount has grown more in the last year than in the last 15 years.

“We’ve had to change how we hire as we were seeing a real lack of diversity when getting CVs in - just seeing the same CVs over again. We work on a lot of digital inclusion products and services, so it’s really important that our workforce reflects those needs and society as a whole. We expanded our recruitment pathways to include MMU degree apprenticeships, Manchester Digital apprenticeships, as well as different bootcamps.”

Most businesses around the table said that they were now less interested in academic achievement or specific degrees when recruiting early talent, but looked at aptitude and a wider range of skill sets when expanding their team. 

Matt Hunt, director at Apadmi, explained how their team had to recruit over 80 people during lockdown and said: “We had to grow very quickly, so we’ve changed how we recruited and how we work. We weren’t just looking for traditional software developers and not just in Greater Manchester - we had to look for people with different skills. 

“We ended up employing a few people working remotely in Edinburgh so it made sense to open a hub for them there. We’ve completely changed the way we work and how we recruit and we’d never go back now.”

To end the discussion Joanna Munnelly, head of digital policy for GMCA, and Greg Stanton, a councillor at Manchester City Council, said a few words about how the region’s authorities are developing digital skills. 

Joanna added, “We agree that there’s work to do around the language used in tech skills and apprenticeships. Also teachers and parents all need to understand more about what skills will be needed in the digital industry.”

Cllr Stanton agreed, and said, “We do need to demystify the language around tech as well as talent and skills. We also need to promote opportunities more to teachers.”

Manchester Digital would like to thank the following people who attended our Roundtable event: 

Paul Scully MP; Phil Smith, co-chair of Digital Skills Council, Helen Embleton, head of digital skills policy at DCMS; Hilary Stephenson, MD at Nexer Digital; Alison Ross, operations and culture director at Auto Trader; John Ward, CTO at SamsonVT; Scott Young, COO at Red Eye; Susanna Yallop, chief people officer at Starling Bank; Michael Taylor, editor at; Safa Alkateb, CEO at Autocab; Mary Beighton, people and culture director at Zuto; Jessica Bowles, director of strategy at Bruntwood; Jon Cowen, director at Slalom; Tom Davies CEO at Robiquity; Tom Dunlop, founder and CEO at Summarize; Susan Mulcahy, director at Data Spark Programme; Ruth Hailwood; organisational and workforce development specialist adviser at GrowthHub; Joanna Munnelly; head of digital policy at GMCA; Matt Hunt; chief performance officer at Apadmi; Greg Stanton, councillor at Manchester City Council.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Sign up here