two people stood side by side in a room
Yiannis Maos with student writer, Viola Kahsay, at the Digital Skills Symposium

As the physical world becomes ever more interconnected with the digital, the need for investment in how we access digital skills is essential. They are now fundamental to the way we work across all sectors, and the demand for the future workforce to enter the market pre-equipped with these skills will only divide us further if it is unaddressed in the classroom. How do we ensure that everyone, regardless of ability or background, has access to the resources necessary to enable their digital futures?

Enter Birmingham Tech, a hub for the region’s rapidly expanding tech industry and their annual Birmingham Tech Week programme that is pioneering ways to increase close the digital divide. Birmingham Tech Week is the West Midlands’ largest tech conference attended by 5000 tech enthusiasts and those in industries supporting tech sector growth.

The conference programme for 2022 highlighted the growing digital divide and considered ways to tackle it. Tech Week sheds light on the different initiatives in place to bridge the digital skills gap and to reiterate the importance of these skills in every industry. Birmingham Tech CEO, Yiannis Maos, spoke with us about the digital skills divide, as well as how organisations in the region are tackling these issues as part of the region’s growing global tech hub.

We need to rethink education and how digital goes across the curriculum to really make sure that every child at least has a base knowledge into digital.

Digital Illiteracy as an Epidemic

The growing divide between the digitally literate and illiterate is not only detrimental to individuals, but also to the wider economy. £63 million is lost each year due to the digital skills gap and this is even more of a pressing issue in the West Midlands as Maos highlighted that the region is “the fastest growing tech sector in the UK”. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the region’s tech sector could add £2.7 billion to the economy by 2025, enabling 52,000 jobs. With the sector now valued at £15 billion across the region, Maos commented on the importance of tackling digital illiteracy in young people, and how it must be included in the education system from as early an age as possible:

“I think that we need to rethink education and how digital goes across the curriculum to really make sure that every child at least has a base knowledge into digital…You can work in tech but specialise in marketing, operations, sales, or logistics, and actually still have those analytical skills that allow you to thrive in your career - that is the kind of digital skills I want to see across the board put into education.”

Incorporating digital skills into the education system and supporting equality in access to tech careers will help to bridge the gap between different demographics in the region, as certain demographics take up tech roles at a significantly lower rate. This inequality must be tackled across education – from primary education to higher education.

Former Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Damian Collins MP, presented the importance of digital skills in the levelling-up agenda
Former Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, Damian Collins MP, presented the importance that digital skills have in the levelling-up agenda

The Importance of Higher Education Institutions

Higher Education institutions have the platform and resources required to help equip the future workforce with the necessary skills required to bridge the growing divide. In relation to the University of Birmingham’s significant contribution to Tech Week 2022, Maos commented:

“Higher Education has the ability to convene, and has the resources…that can actually lead the way when it comes to technology…It’s hugely important that universities take a leadership role on this, and it’s why it’s great to see The University of Birmingham deliver and develop the Birmingham Digital Futures programme”

The University of Birmingham is actively working to improve digital literacy across the region through the Birmingham Digital Futures initiative, launched in collaboration with PwC and Tech She Can. The initiative will “diversify the pool of regional talent” and “raise awareness in communities about the possibilities of technology”. This will be achieved using a multi-pronged approach, with the first step being a programme of lesson packs and role model videos for primary-aged children. These resources, created by Tech She Can, highlight the range of tech careers available and showcase the diverse community of individuals working in technology. There are many misconceptions about tech, with a certain type of individual seen as ‘tech-savvy’ by the media. It is important to broaden the representation of those who do work in tech, to encourage young people to consider a career in the digital space and to demonstrate that tech is a sector open to anyone willing to immerse themselves in developing those skills.

It’s hugely important that universities take a leadership role on this, and it’s why it’s great to see The University of Birmingham deliver and develop the Birmingham Digital Futures programme.

The Future Workforce

Birmingham and the West Midlands are international tech hubs and must start developing the regional talent available to facilitate this exponential growth. Improving digital skills regionally will positively impact every industry going forward. Maos touched on this when discussing the future workforce of the West Midlands:

“Organisations of all shapes and sizes are going to need those skills whether they know it or not yet. Even a coffee shop is a digital company now, as they are going to need knowledge of their customers through data and analytics…and how to engage customers in a better way to improve that customer experience. So, the rallying call is every business needs to look at [how they are] acquiring, attracting, and developing that talent within their organisations”

The social benefits of developing digital skills in all young people are huge. Removing perceived barriers to tech careers and encouraging those from underrepresented demographics to apply has enormous economic benefits and can change the trajectories of people living in more deprived areas. Maos mentioned the importance of initiatives like BlackCodHer in supporting those underrepresented demographics:

“Niyo run the BlackCodHer bootcamps and get black women into tech…they’ve really kind of honed down into the biggest divide when it comes to digital skills - there are no black women in tech! So, they are working really hard together to make sure that those underrepresented groups get into technology.”

Whether you are a tech business or not, lean in, understand more, and be part of the group of us that are trying to benefit the West Midlands.

How Businesses Engage

Birmingham Tech exists to connect and amplify this movement towards increasing digital literacy across the region to the wider tech ecosystem. Just as institutions like the University of Birmingham work alongside tech businesses to bridge the gap, all companies must include the development of digital skills in their ethos, and actively work to improve the diversity of talent they are incorporating into their businesses. As Maos says:

“Whether you are a tech business or not, lean in, understand more, and be part of the group of us that are trying to benefit the West Midlands, but also narrow that digital skills gap as a consequence.”

To be part of the movement yourself, find out more about Birmingham Digital Futures, and engage with the work of Birmingham Tech to help build a future workforce that has the digital skills required to excel in all sectors. Contact us at bhamdigitalfutures@contacts.bham.ac.uk.