The Government’s Minister for Digital and Creative Industries was warned of the skills challenges facing the North East during a visit to the region this week.
Margot James MP met a group technology experts for a roundtable talk at the soon-to-open North East Futures University Technical College (UTC) in Newcastle.
The hour-long discussion saw Ms James admit that the North East is facing greater challenges in securing the skills it needs for the digital age than other parts of the country.
But she went on to say that the region is blessed with tech-focused universities and a business community that fosters a collaborative approach not seen elsewhere.
The multi-million-pound UTC scheme, where the event was hosted, is due to open to students this September.
Located in Newcastle’s Stephenson Quarter, the college will specialise in digital technology and health science courses for 14- to 19-year-olds.
Those present at the roundtable included Mark Larsen, MD of Accenture Newcastle; Klaus-Michael Volgelburg, chief technology officer at Sage; Prof. John Fitzgerald, head of Newcastle University’s School of Computing; Andrew Besford, Government Digital Services Deputy Director, and Rebecca Strachan, Northumbria University professor of digital technology and education.
Ms James said at the event, titled How to create a global technology hub in the North East: “The talent pool is the biggest challenge and I think that it’s possibly a greater challenge here than in other parts of the country.
“It’s a great connection that you have up here. The opportunities you have for collaboration seem greater than they do in London and the South East.
She added: “It is great to see the energy, drive and passion and the large potential here in the North East. The future is very bright.”
But attendees explained that the region struggled to attract and retain talent.
Among the challenges highlighted were poor IT skills developed in secondary schools, and attracting people with high-level tech skills to the classroom instead of better paid jobs with tech firms.
Ms James also heard how poor broadband connectivity across rural Northumberland, along with associated structural issues, meant the North East was playing catchup with the rest of the country.
The principal designate of North East Futures UTC, Daniel Sydes, said the college will have a responsibility to give North East tech companies the skilled workforce they need.
Welcoming Ms James’ visit, he said he hoped she would act on the issues raised at the roundtable, commenting: “I’m pleased the Minister committed to taking part in this roundtable and was able to hear the strong and expert opinions of those present.
“It is important to all of us working in the technology sector in this region that our views and suggestions around its present and future direction are being listened to.”
Mr Sydes continued: “We will be the most expansive technical college outside of London and will feed talented and qualified people into industry every year.
“It will be two years before our graduates will be coming through, but there is the demand there for them to go straight into industry and to help businesses of all sizes to grow.”
Mark Larsen, who chaired the event, said the biggest issues are “availability of talent and skills”.
He explained: “All industries are experiencing some form of digital disruption and need tech expertise to help them navigate the changing landscape.
“The skills needed are broad [so we] need to cast the net wide, and appeal to the widest cross section of students and adults.”
North East Futures UTC will have space for up to 600 students.
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