The first regional meeting for the EPSRC HDI project: ‘Data and disadvantage: taking a regional approach towards Human Data Interaction (HDI) to inform local and national digital skills policies’ took place on 9 September 2020
Hosted by the Education Observatory and attended by 20 participants from digital technology businesses, local agencies across the Black Country, such as West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), Black Country Consortium, Wolverhampton.gov and West Midlands Combined Universities as well as academics from University of Wolverhampton, this first meeting heard from two speakers from the tech industry, followed by a lively interactive discussion on both challenges and opportunities for inclusive approaches to digital upskilling to aid employability and regeneration in the region.
First Matt Jones, who is the Chief Operating Officer at Parent Pay discussed the work of the regional Digital Skills Partnership (DSP), which he Chairs. Formed in 2018 as part of the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), the DSP is a public/private partnership that connects the work of employers, digital entrepreneurs, LEPS, educational bodies and central government offices. Its primary function is to identify local need for digital skills, develop initiatives and attract investment and talent into the region to try to fill the demand. Government funding has been attracted into the region to help with re-training displaced employees. The digital re-training fund has invested over £5 million into the local region to support under-represented communities and to place 1700 people in work over 3 years. During the Covid-19 period many courses have been taken online with progress being tracked. The DSP is a voluntary advisory board which meets quarterly with broad expert representation from the region, BT, Microsoft and local tech entrepreneurs who are working together to move the WMCA digital skills agenda forward. Matt discussed the complex challenges involved in coordinating this work as a ubiquitous issue, when so many people are trying to solve the problem of digital skills across companies and communities. Therefore, the approach is to look at providing various educational and skills packages to support people to enter the digital arena and secure meaningful employment. Boot camps have been successful in developing skills but the ongoing matching of individuals with employers in a sustainable way is an important part of this dialogue. Getting employers to take newly trained individuals moving from one role to another or those just starting out in their career is very diverse in terms of the requirements. Gaining employer confidence to take entry-level candidates and seeing the value in this is important. The aim is to see what really works in terms of the models to deliver these goals, so the DSP is seeking to understand these interactions, where to place the investment and get more of these training packages into place. Scaling up without too much fragmentation in terms of similar initiatives running at once is necessary and understanding the local demand, what people need and who wants to hire, as well as clear articulation of what the roles are. The myriad backgrounds and pathways that people are coming from include those with experience who have been displaced through automation or innovation, those who have struggled to find work, those just leaving school or those without qualifications. Therefore, adopting a hybrid model of non-qualification based training, links with education institutions and employers to help people build skills from early years and throughout life as a model for the masses is the short term focus. This leads into discussions on embedding digital skills across the curriculum and how data can be shared across the cross-sector stakeholders to bridge the links between candidacy and employment.
Much open discussion and sharing of resources, links and initiatives followed Matt’s talk as representatives from local agencies gave their input. Some key points made included:
- The need to bring out a clear narrative on why these skills are important
- How Covid-19 has amplified the need for digital skills
- How to reach the very diverse communities in the region.
- How to signpost and curate journeys for people
- Providing a lobby where displaced employees might go
- How employers and entrepreneurs connect with newly trained candidates
- What more universities might do within this cross-sector network
- Use of university facilities for training camps, working out cost-effective curricula
- Routes for people getting onto pathways towards digital skills
- A lot of self-led online skills training can be seen as less legitimate by employers
Tobi Oludayomi, Managing Director of Studio 14 digital product agency spoke to the group next. He discussed the setting up of an initiative by his company called Tech Hut, which involves staff from Studio 14 going into schools and colleges to introduce children and students to careers in the digital industry. Tobi discussed his Nigerian background and the expectations that parents from Africa and the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community often have for their children’s education. He described the belief that a lot of parents hold that a career in technology may not be a sustainable career. Parents in these communities are making decisions on the A Levels their children study, and children can find themselves chasing their parents’ dreams rather than their own. Therefore, the Tech Hut initiative introduces digital skills from a very young age and there is also a need to do some educating of parents and carers about the sustained opportunities that skills for digital careers can yield. A lot of work is needed in this area to demonstrate that jobs in the tech industry are the way forward. If this does not happen then we will not see the diversity that we want to see amongst computer programmers and designers of digital systems to reduce bias in technologies we use. Tobi mentioned that a friend of his runs a programme called The Black Codher which as part of the WMCA’s digital initiative are holding coding bootcamps in Birmingham for black women over 18, unemployed or employed with a salary of under £20k. There were 300 applicants but unfortunately only 40 places so there is clearly a lot more scope for developing such programmes by BAME communities for BAME communities. In Tobi’s experience addressing these two issues could help a lot in addressing diversity across digital skills transformation in the Midlands.
Further open discussion and sharing of resources, links and initiatives followed Tobi’s talk as representatives from the local agencies added input. Some key points made included:
- How to bring the 240 unsuccessful Black Codher applicants into WMCA strategy
- How to bring universities and secondary schools on board to create more programmes for the public and help SMEs to deliver jobs as a partnership
- Quick solutions to get people into employment: mapping out a structure of provision
- New emphasis on HNCs, filling the gaps between FE/HE/employment and agreeing how to deliver solutions for diverse individuals e.g. alternative delivery times, speed at which qualifications are offered to enable quick responses for employers
- Challenges that employers face as they need experienced candidates to hire
- Bringing links between skills training and The Kickstart Programme
- Campaigns that are needed to campaign for BAME community to join bootcamps
- Translation for diverse adult learners to see where they fit is hugely important
- Unpicking collaborative funding opportunities across the networks
In the second half of the meeting Dr Stuart Connor introduced discussion on Digital Citizenship as a way into thinking about the Human Data Interaction (HDI) tenets that may not yet be attended to within digital skills training. These are necessary in enabling people to:
- understand what is happening to data about them (legibility)
- change relevant systems to be in better accord with their wishes (agency)
- work with the people using the data so as to improve that processing (negotiability)
Considering these issues amongst digital citizenship, which is linked to all manner of skills and confidence that those seeking employment need to demonstrate to employers, is useful to ensure that vital factors are not omitted from re-training programmes. If left out, then those who are on the margins may experience further disadvantage.
The meeting concluded with a summary and plans to keep this dialogue going with individuals ahead of the second HDI regional event which will be scheduled in early 2021.
“I can say that I found these discussions really enriching”Wayne Langford – Director, West Midlands Combined Universities
“I thought it was an excellent meeting”Scott Grindey, Senior Skills Analyst, Black Country Consortium