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Design and Tech City II: Local Skills and Young People
Diane Abbott MP
Diane Abbott MP
How do we engage the local youth of Hackney with Tech City businesses?
"Getting the balance right between being a centre of excellence and an open and accessible community is naturally tricky... At present, those descending on this area - Shoreditch, Hackney, Bow, Bethnal Green - tend to be of a rather narrow demographic: white, male, middle class. The local community could be a source of diversity, if new business communities can be made to connect with, for example, young people in local schools."
- From 'Design and Tech City I: Place and Space in East London'
The ChallengeAt present, for the majority of young people in Hackney, the only contact they have with the vibrant Tech City business community – one of the capital’s economic powerhouses – is in passing. Of the tens of thousands of jobs that have been created here over recent years, few have been accessible to the local community. This APDIG discussion explored the youth engagement question, looking for practical examples of opening up the Tech City jobs market to school- and college-leavers from Hackney.
Why does it matter that the diversity of the local population is reflected in the make-up of the workforce?
- Tech City grew from the inherent character of the area – the diversity, and the creative and industrial DNA of East London – and therefore owes its existence somewhat to the local mix. Tech City is full of start-ups, and the East End is the spiritual home of the London entrepreneur.
- Such a stark division between the haves and have-nots – and especially when the haves are clearly recognisable with their Apple products and distinctive look of ‘extras from The Social Network’ – could create unhappy social tensions.
- There are tangible business benefits to developing a local skills ecosystem, and more intangible (social) ones of having employees who are invested in the local community.
- Businesses in Tech City consistently complain of a skills shortfall, and East London has a growing problem with youth unemployment.
The ‘opening up’ of Tech City seems, at first, quite well-matched to the nature of its businesses: shared offices, flexible working, a collaborative, open-source culture. However, much of what is currently available in the public sector arsenal of access and diversity interventions needs a more rigid workplace structure in order to be implemented.
Many of these businesses operate in a reactive, project based way – responding to change and demand by expanding and contracting, taking on freelancers and shifting between different office space. They are often small – perhaps a team of two or three people who met at university – and have very clear goals and shared interests and attitudes. If taking on an apprentice, for example, means expanding your workforce by a third, and introducing someone who is not part of your intimate network into your studio, it is no surprise that apprenticeships are viewed with scepticism. There are also some natural concerns around protection of IP, in an industry where everyone’s business depends on their originality.
There is also a gap of understanding: young people don’t know how these businesses operate, or what they do, and businesses don’t see the commercial and social value of taking on school and college leavers. Those offering career advice to young people may be similarly uninformed about the nature of the local economy: parents and teachers need to be included in any campaign to educate. And a more diverse group of role models needs to be promoted.
Finally, ‘opening up’ is not only about encouraging existing businesses to recruit more widely. Tech City was originally a very ‘grass roots’ community of entrepreneurs, hackers and makers – and still is. As much effort needs to be placed on equipping school leavers to set up on their own and become part of the next generation of start ups.
PerspectivesExpert View 1: Education
Annie Blackmore is Headteacher of the soon-to-open Hackney University Technical College, a form of state funded ‘free school’ for 14-19 years which, alongside a general education, places more emphasis on technical and vocational skills. Ms Blackmore explained how the UTC model relies heavily on involvement of the private sector in shaping the curriculum – often in a bid to counter skills shortages in the economy. As well as helping to design teaching content, local businesses can engage with the UTC through workshops, mentoring programmes and talks. She is very clear in her vision that none of her future UTC graduates will become ‘NEETS’.
Expert View 2: Industry
The digital and creative sector has for many years been criticised for not taking the bold steps to open up new routes into their sectors (see below). There is clearly still a job to be done in finding an appropriate place for school leavers and apprenctices in these businesses, and developing a more diverse workforce in general. Janet Hull of the Insitiute of Practitioners in Advertising (an industry that is notoriously hard to get a start in without contacts) described some brand new Level 3 and 4 training opportunities for young people wanting to work in the digital and advertising sectors. By September of this year, there will be new 300 new apprenticeships up and running for marketing, communications and advertising, classifying students as ‘Can Do’, Can Code’ or ‘Can Start’, depending on their base skill level. They hope this will start to provide a bridge between employers and the many young people inspired by the creative and digital sectors.
Expert View 3: Community Regeneration
Educational standards in Hackney and Tower Hamlets are improving. Young people are leaving the education system better qualified than their parents, yet the local economy is not always receptive to their skills and abilities. Clive Tritton of Renaisi spoke of his frustration about this labour market stalemate and the varying nature of employment support. He described a number of projects designed to address this imbalance, including one modelled on the successful US ‘Year Up’ programme. This is a ‘high expectation, high support’ model where a third sector organisation (such as Renaisi) supports an individual to work in another company. The programme is highly competitive, and relies on creating a high stakes atmosphere around each placement: young people are driven to succeed for themselves, but also for the two organisations invested in their success. Renaisi are working with Hackney Community College to develop something similar later in the year.
Expert View 4: Play as learning
Fiddian Warman of Soda believes that tech literacy is crucially important for everyone – and, as with any language, it is understanding what you can create with it that is inspiring. Soda – which he founded – is a small but very active creative agency based in Southwark that develops digital tools to help communities ‘work, play and learn together’. They focus on using tech to encourage young people to work with their immediate environment, to help them understand what is happening in their community. One early project (called CCTV) helped kids living in the areas around the City of London to understand what happens in the businesses operating there, by turning them into explorers and journalists. Soda have also developed games that encourage people to use code and algorithms: Sodaplay is one such.
Some solutions.1. Making apprenticeships work
Apprenticeships are clearly an important element in the school-to-work landscape. But how to make them work in the particular context of Tech City?
Apprenticeships are no longer the same as they used to be – perhaps the concept needs a rebrand to sound more appealing?
The larger multinationals in the community are well-resourced to support apprentices, the SMEs less so. Could shared apprenticeship schemes help de-risk the concept for small businesses? Is there a way they can be formalised or unitised? How do we tackle the worry of IP leakage through shared employees?
Apprentices and interns become more useful the longer they are around, as they become more skilled and get a better understanding of the business. SMEs sometimes need to be supported financially to take on an extra member of staff for an extended period. Some organisations (such as Livity, and Renaisi as described above) already do this.
2. Making tech fun
Tech skills are crucial for the economy. But engaging young people in developing such skills has to focus on what they enjoy doing – not what they think will get them a job in the distant future.
These are intense (normally 2-day) workshops where designers, makers, developers and people with ideas come together to build new things. In the past these have worked well when students and pupils have been involved, and this is something schools could consider running on weekends or during holidays more frequently. Could local businesses provide – as well as the people – the soft- or hardware to support such hack events?
Young people need to get a taste of designing and making for themselves, and being rewarded for it. Competitions are an excellent way of inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs and inventors. The Design Council has previously run very successful design challenges in schools. Prizes in the future could include an intern- or apprenticeship within a Tech City business.
3. Redesigning teaching
Development of curriculum
Annie Blackmore noted that the deepest impact will come from businesses working with schools and exam boards to redesign curricula - easier within institutions such as studio schools and UTCs. The current overhaul of ICT has opened up the field to allow this to happen. The same could work well with other subjects – art, design, STEM. As noted by Annie Blackmore, cross-disciplinarity is key: kids shouldn’t have to decide at age 15 if they are ‘a geek or a luvvy’. The distinction between creative and tech is a false and unhelpful one.
Training for teachers
Local HE institutions and businesses could provide creative-tech-specific training for teachers – and neutral spaces for this to happen.
Online resources like Code Academy, Teen Tech, and Sodaplay are invaluable and should be embraced by schools in their teaching.
4. Pulling everything together
There are many initiatives in this area. It is the job of UKTI and the Tech City Investment Organisation to map and understand them, and disseminate that information to educators, young people and businesses.
Many thanks to all of our speakers and attendees, and discussion chair Diane Abbott MP, for their participation and enthusiasm. The next in the APDIG's Tech City Series will explore the urban fabric: how does Tech City work on the ground?