Digital Skills Fest: "A fantastic opportunity for students"

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Manchester Digital’s Skills Festival is back for the sixth year, and once again MMU is supporting this important event.

The annual Digital Skills Festival has established itself as an essential event for Manchester’s digital sector. Now in its sixth year, in 2014 it expanded from two to four days. This year, the number of companies applying to be part of its popular Talent Day – a must for all students wanting a career in digital – has been higher than ever.

Starting on 9 February with a conference at Manchester Town Hall, the growing demand for the Talent Day is indicative of the burning issue at the heart of the festival – the city’s digital skills shortage.

“The big panel at the conference is about overheating,” explains Katie Gallagher, MD of event organiser Manchester Digital. “Are we actually going to run out of talent and lose companies because we can’t resource them?

“We really are the second city in terms of digital. So is it just growing pains, do we need to accept it for a few years and live with it – what’s going to be the solution? Hopefully there’ll be a lively discussion.”

Opportunities

The success of the festival is a reflection of Manchester’s ever-growing digital industry, and Gallagher is quick to point out that it is “still far easier to access talent here than in London, the size of our talent pool gives us opportunities that other cities just don’t have”.

Stressing that the festival is a focal point for the “ongoing, year-round work that we do, a lot of it behind the scenes”, Gallagher talks about “developing the local talent pool”, explaining that, as the sector continues to expand, demand is outstripping supply. Developers, especially those with knowledge of Magento – widely used for the development of e-commerce sites – are, she says, particularly hard to recruit.

It’s no wonder, then, that companies have been queuing up to take part in Talent Day, which provides an opportunity for students to check out the sector – and companies to meet the talent.

The skills issue is also impacting on the make up of the companies attending the Talent Day, explains Gallagher. “Because the skills shortage is affecting everybody and some companies quite severely, we’ve got more global brands exhibiting than ever before. It’s as many brands as it is agencies this year.”

Does this reflect a general trend? “It’s been moving that way. We’ve always had some brands, but there’s been such a boom in the online and retail sector in the north west, so it’s a really accurate reflection of the way the industry has blossomed here in the last two or three years.”

Digital education

The education sector, of course, has a key role to play in addressing the digital skills shortage, and MMU is playing its part. A supporter of the festival since it started – MMU worked with Manchester Digital to set up the first ever Talent Day, then know as ProDev Day – once again the University is a heavily involved.

“It’s critical that we support the festival,” explains David Edmundson-Bird, Principal Lecturer in Digital & Social Media Comms at MMU.

“It works hand in hand with our mission to create world-class professionals. By being involved we ensure that students and digital firms in the city and wider region are able to access each other. This is one of those rare occasions when future talent is visible to the industry.”

Edmundson-Bird, who is also Associate Director for Digital Innovation at MMU, believes that Talent Day is a must for any student looking for a digital career. “It’s important for students to be there,” he says. “No other event gives both students and employers such close and informal access to each other.”

Career in digital

Richard Eskins, Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader, BSc Web Development, reiterates the role the event can play in preparing students for a career in digital.

“Talent Day is a fantastic opportunity for students of all years to learn something about the industry, about the skills employers require and about the variety of jobs and roles that are available. Even students nearing the end of their academic career need the advice and guidance that an employer can give from a first-hand perspective.”

While all the talk is of a skills shortage, at the same time it’s clear that Talent Day is working as a way to introduce students to the industry. “Last year,” reports Eskins, “some of our own graduates were on the stands, representing employers.”

For Gallagher, the relationship between industry and education is more important than ever; ultimately, it is key to addressing the digital skills shortage. “There are some fantastic initiatives happening, but there’s still a great deal of work that needs to be done, particularly about educating parents and students about what those digital jobs actually are – that they are credible, well-paid jobs with progression paths.”

And as the digital sector continues to grow and change with every new technological development, the importance of the Skills Festival looks likely to continue. “It’s about making sure that both companies and educational institutions are aware of what’s coming down the line,” says Gallagher, “and are prepared to work with us to try and come up with some solutions.”

Digital Skills Festival runs from 9-12 February, Manchester Town Hall. More information at www.manchesterdigital.com/events/digital-skills-festival-2016