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Phil O’Neil – Curriculum Leader in Digital Technologies at Newcastle College, shares his thoughts on making digital students work-ready, to help close the North East’s digital skills gap.

The skills-gap is an interesting term, because you can sit in a room full of different companies and get lots of different answers as to whether it exists or not. If indeed there is a skills gap, the old model isn't working and we need to think progressively to fix it.

Working in education, I have witnessed a rise in apprenticeships and a slight decline in degree students but the numbers still appear to balance and I believe the technical skills they are learning still plug the gap that employers are looking for.

Is the main issue that these students are simply falling at the first hurdle – the interview?

What is meant by work-ready? Usually, when I ask this question at cluster events or sector breakfasts I receive similar answers; soft skills! Qualifications are a given and if a student leaves higher education with a 2:1 or above, they most likely know how to do the job.

But employers are looking for more than candidates with technical knowledge. They need people who can maintain eye contact, are able to hold conversations, have a good work ethic and attitude, have good presentation skills, hold generally good timekeeping, are resilient. All of the other attributes which make a well-rounded employee.

There’s a well-known stereotype of introverted gamers when it comes to digital students – perhaps those personal qualities are based on some fact. So as a sector, how do we make our ‘gamers’ work-ready? So how do higher education institutions make their students work-ready?

Many institutions (like Newcastle College University Centre) have incentives and some ability to invest funds into work-ready initiatives, but how do we spend it and achieve the most impact?

In the past, my team and I have organised extra qualifications, trips to industry and guest speakers. Some of these have cost money but many rely on goodwill or collaborative efforts between the institution and local businesses and from my own observations, it is these collaborative efforts which have the biggest measurable impact on students.

Our current strategy of employer engagement involves mock interviews for our Level 6 students, which have led to real interviews and real job offers. Even those without a job offer receive valuable feedback to help them improve.

Guest speakers from industry are valuable because they enthuse and inspire students and highlight the talent and the opportunities available in the North East; they show that there are real jobs in the region within cyber, software and gaming, or that skills can be transferred across specialisms.

We often ask employers for input into our course content, including briefs for modules so that students can use real-life scenarios in their work. We have also had talks and workshops from businesses who knew very little of our programmes but now endorse and help build our degrees.

Each of our employer connections has grown organically and has meant that the businesses are not under pressure to give up too much time, both parties are able to compromise and reach a mutual understanding which I feel is the healthiest way to grow this type of relationship.

We can enrich our degree courses in many ways, including those listed above, so that students see the real world benefits of what they are learning within the classroom.

Why is this our responsibility?

Students too, have some responsibility in making themselves work-ready. After all, when we were at university we weren’t provided with initiatives like this to help us progress, were we? That is true to a point, although I’m sure that most of us have looked up to a mentor who has helped to guide us at some time. The first mentor figure in my life was a teacher, so it’s not too surprising that I became a teacher too. If employers were able to engage with students at an earlier stage and not just within higher education, students could see what is achievable and set their goals earlier.

Of course, there are many students who actively seek work placements and create their own network, but taking into account neurodiversity (diagnosed and undiagnosed), there are students who may need support to do this. Many do not have the soft skills needed to be work-ready due to learning barriers and therefore need guidance and structure to their development.

How can employers help?

Higher education providers need the help of employers to build initiatives into modules and turn a Level 3 gaming student into a work-ready professional within three years.

We need a clear vision from employers as to what makes someone work-ready for their business and how that can be achieved. We can then build this into the modules delivered, into the learning outcomes and into the values within lessons. It means we can spend the funds allocated on ensuring our students are an employer’s version of work-ready.

All higher education providers need more connections. At Newcastle College University Centre, we work with various businesses, but we need to reach a wider pool of digital organisations in the North East to help close the skills gap. Our vision is to have an employer attached to every module we deliver so they can visit and motivate students, giving the impression that work has already started and helping students begin to build their network, something they need in order to develop and adopt the correct soft-skills quickly.

Get engaged with your local college or university, even if that isn’t us. Come and see the students who will be essentially your future workforce. Help close the skills gap by making them work-ready while they’re still learning.

Don’t be discouraged if you see a student in front of you and not a young professional. They’re still on their journey and it is our joint responsibility to help guide them. It is those businesses that do who will reap the benefits from their future employees.

If you liked this post, please share with your friends and followers. If you are also doing some amazing things with digital technology, why not enter yourself for the Digital Enterprise Top 100 initiative. Entries close on 3 May 2019.

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