Students in digital technology are gearing up for the future at Newcastle College, as they prepare to close the North East’s digital skills gap.

Curriculum leader at the college, Phil O’Neil gives an insight into how his students are getting ‘work ready’ ahead of embarking on a career in the digital industry:

The existence of a ‘digital skills gap’ is a hot topic for debate in some companies, with a whole host of differing opinions on its validity and extent. Should the skills gap be a genuine problem, then a new solution is required as past efforts have only caused it to widen.

Routes into employment continue to fluctuate in popularity, with degree students being slightly overtaken by apprentices, but all things considered the playing field has levelled out. Technical skills taught in both methods of education are invaluable when it comes to employers looking for new recruits. However, many prospect employees face difficulties in the traditional interview format and miss out on opportunities consequently.

The term ‘work ready’ is often misinterpreted, and there are a series of stock answers which employers fall back on for a definition. When asked, many employers refer to ‘soft skills’, and they regard any further qualifications as a bonus. For graduates, the benchmark 2:1 degree is often a signifier to many employers that they are taking on the right candidate.

Despite this, interviewers are disregarding technical skills and favouring the ability to:

  • Hold eye contact
  • Keep a conversation flowing
  • Present themselves suitably and
  • Demonstrate good work ethic
  • Have good interpersonal skills

These are all now seen as invaluable attributes in potential candidates.

The digital sector is often characterised by the ‘introverted gamer’ stereotype, so how do we go about nurturing an outward sense of confidence in these kinds of candidates?

The steps towards becoming ‘work ready’

In the latest report, Newcastle College Ofsted findings praised the college for its investment into work-ready initiatives. Often, the main challenges arise when course leaders must decide exactly how to spend this money. A collaborative effort between local businesses and institutions can deliver a wealth of useful experiences for students, as can bringing in guest lecturers and arranging off-site industry trips. These events happen on a regular basis at the college, and they receive positive responses from students.

The college also hosts mock interviews for the level 6 students, whereby many have progressed into real interviews and even employment. The employers who participate also commit to providing helpful feedback on each interview, allowing the students to identify areas to build upon for the next time. A further incentive to students is through guest speakers, who deliver industry expertise on subject areas to inspire students. They are also brilliant for highlighting employment opportunities in the North East, uncovering a wealth of vacancies in cyber, gaming and software roles.

We often consult employers for advice prior to designing our modules, and we have gained a string of partnerships with businesses who many not have been aware of the sector before, but they now endorse and contribute to our degrees. Our employer connections have grown throughout the years, mostly via organic developments which assist the natural flow of the relationship between our institution and each of our partners. By using this approach, we can show our students the real-world nature of the skills which they are learning throughout their studies.

Our responsibility as an institution

Students are undoubtedly responsible for their part in becoming ‘work-ready’ and making the most of new initiatives like ours is a great way to demonstrate this. The mentor role is something we take very seriously, and I personally share in the value of learning from such a figure. My first mentor in life was a teacher, and I went on to work in the same profession. If there was an opportunity for employers to develop a rapport with students from an early point, then their employment prospects could be enhanced.

Showing initiative by arranging work placements is a positive trait in students, but a range of factors such as varying neurodiversity can mean that students require extra support to pursue these avenues. Also, soft-skills are not universal, as many require guidance because of differences in ability amongst students.

How to get involved if you are an employer

For a level 3 student to become ready for the workplace, an infrastructure of useful modules with practical aspects must be implemented into the curriculum. Partnerships with employers are an essential aspect of education for digital technology students, as they expose prospective employees to the work environment before their career has begun. Our college is implementing an employers’ perception of ‘work-ready’ into our learning expectations, ensuring that every lesson is tailored to delivering a certain goal. This is one of the best ways for us ensure our students are ‘work-ready’.

Our students leave the college with an array of work connections, which provides them a base to advance on and seek employment from. We are working proactively to increase our existing partnerships and approach more businesses, to help close the North East’s digital skills gap. The current goal is to guarantee an employer to each of our digital modules, to pass on valuable industry knowledge. In turn, this will help our students to expand their connections, and consequently their employment horizons.

We encourage local businesses to visit universities and colleges, to observe and contribute to existing learning approaches, and to become a force behind the closure of the skills gap. Our students are all on a unique journey towards professional life, and with the right support in place your business could benefit from these young, ‘work-ready’ minds.

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