The government’s Levelling Up agenda has brought renewed focus on the importance of generating investment across the country – not just in London. 

As the country begins to work towards a post-Brexit, post-pandemic future, the potential for growth in the North is limitless. With northern innovation only increasing, the area is ready for further investment to promote continued expansion. 

However, to attract this, there remain many challenges to address. While every company realises digitisation and innovation are necessary to remain competitive, the whole country lacks the essential digital skills needed to drive them. The latest ONS figures consistently show that we are simply not able to meet this demand, resulting in an impending skills crisis, unless a new approach to digital talent is implemented soon. 

Bridging the digital skills gap and bringing young talent into companies are the most important steps in achieving the investment needed, particularly through a collective effort to shape and amplify the voice of the North. 

The power of digital talent

The future is digital. While ongoing digitisation has characterised the last two decades, the pandemic spurred on the rate of change for businesses of every size. Consumers now turn to digital solutions as the default, and companies must meet this demand to survive. Embracing new technologies will therefore be key in promoting investment in the North, demonstrating innovation and keeping up with an increasingly digital national and international economy. 

As companies implement digital strategies to stimulate growth, business and tech leaders are increasingly collaborating to ensure they are working together to meet business goals. However, reports show that strong digital talent is in short supply, which is a company’s most valuable asset. At the beginning of 2022, there were 34,000 unfilled technology jobs, which represented 30% of the workers in digital positions. The country’s digital skills gap is evident, exacerbated by the lack of comprehensive technology education. 

A two-pronged solution is required, drawing on the resources and influence of the government and companies. National bodies will need to take responsibility for expanding the education provisions for young people, while companies lead the way in training and upskilling their current employees. Simply solving the national curriculum will not be enough; in order to avoid a temporary solution, the entire pipeline of talent must be considered.

Driving innovation through collaboration 

While each individual and business can make a meaningful contribution to attracting investment, a collaborative strategy is key to ensuring its long-term success. Let’s take inspiration from the success of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a precursor to the Levelling Up agenda and excellent proof of the success that can be achieved through collaboration. 

Already cited in the Levelling Up whitepaper as an example of a successful pan-region partnership, members include Barclays, Arcadis and Virgin Money, as well as many other SMEs. The businesses have demonstrated the value to be found in increasing the voice of the North as a collective and raising its profile. 

Broader initiatives can also ensure new talent is diverse and accepted. Programmes that focus on bringing women into tech and diversity in the workplace have the potential to attract a wide range of young people and launch the careers of those who may not have previously believed a career in tech was for them, further tackling the digital skills gap. 

But collaboration isn’t just limited to these kinds of organisations and initiatives. SMEs can benefit from working together to offer new opportunities to one another and bring a wider skillset to customers. For example, Grayce offers companies the opportunity to access excellent talent who have already received high-quality training and to support organisations in embracing and implementing their digital future. 

Call to give Liverpool’s gaming sector more attention

Attraction to the North 

Improving the training and resources available to young people will be key in redressing the digital skills issue across the country; however specific measures need to be considered to attract this talent to the North. Offering opportunities is not the only step – the opportunities must also be attractive to talent. The London-centric approach that the Levelling Up agenda aims to solve has led to young people believing that the only destination for career growth and exciting opportunities lies in London.

While this is far from the truth, actively promoting the range and quality of companies in the North is needed to change this perception. Alongside this, national and local investment in infrastructure, and the expansion of Northern Hubs, will work to improve the quality and range of options for fresh talent. Promotion of unexpected – or underpromoted – industry hubs, such as media, can then expand young people’s ideas of what is on offer. 

In addition, a modern and forward-thinking approach to work is also a key priority for young people and something businesses will need to prioritise. The pandemic has ushered in a new era of work expectations, and the latest talent retention figures reflect employees will accept nothing less than what is appealing and fair. Hybrid working and flexible hours are often essential parts of this, and while this may divert from tradition, it can also improve teams’ mental health and work-life balance. 

Collective work, collective success

There is no avoiding the fact that there is a long way to go and much work to do to achieve the level of investment the North deserves. Embracing a digital future is truly the best way to attract new opportunities, and this simply will not be possible without prioritising the current and future generations of digital talent. But companies don’t have to work alone to achieve this; a collaborative effort will achieve more success for everyone in the long term.

As Liz Truss departs, do SMEs have faith in government?