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South East LEP virtual conference shines a spotlight on skills and digital in the South East

The South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s (SELEP) inaugural Skills Advisory Panel (SAP) and Digital Skills Partnership (DSP) Annual Conference has been lauded as a resounding success, with more than 200 participants taking part across the day to hear from a range of renowned experts in a multitude of fields.

Hosted by online conferencing provider Digital Leaders, the conference – which took place on the 8th October – kicked off with virtual networking and SELEP Chair Christian Brodie gave an opening address.

Christian said: “Skills, and particularly digital skills, have been very much in the spotlight recently and remain a priority area for our LEP. Over the last few years, we’ve invested nearly £70 million skills capital funding for a wide range of exciting projects to ensure we have facilities fit for industry led training. Nearly £80 million European Social Funding has supported individuals into jobs and training and to progress within work.”

Helen Clements, community investment advisor at Morgan Sindall and the newly appointed Chair of the SAP gave an overview of the vital work of the advisory panel and noted the commitment of so many in the South East who bolster the skills agenda with their hard work, ongoing support and collaboration.

The morning session heard from Lynne Matthews, about the potential future opportunities that a future Bradwell B Power Station will hold for skills development. This was followed by an insightful session on skills in the care industry and the importance of digital by Diane Buddery and Emma White of Skills for Care. Jo Nolan, managing director of Screen South gave an inspiring speech on the creative sector and work being done in collaboration with other national agencies to build a skills pipeline and progression for the Creative sectors – all of which have been identified as crucial sectors for the South East, now and for the future.

Keynote speaker Debbie Forster MBE, CEO of Tech Talent Charter, gave an inspirational account of her professional journey that has led her to championing for diversity in the workplace, drawing on her own experiences throughout her career to start making a difference for women in technology, and to promote diversity in its fullest sense.

However, she noted that diversity extended far beyond creating an inclusive environment for women in the workplace. She said: “We needed to start with a focus, and that was gender – but if all we’re doing is bringing in more middle-class white women, that’s not diversity.”

“We’ve got to change the conversation and listen – we cannot just be talking about gender. We need to understand, as companies, how we can be inclusive to everyone who might come to us, [regardless of] socio-economic background, ethnicity, disability. This is not just about bringing a lot of white, middle-class women into the workplace.”

She told delegates to “flip the conversation” and move it forward to focus on building genuinely inclusive cultures, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, so that these important issues are not left behind post-pandemic. Debbie added that she felt “real energy” to achieve this coming out of the South East: “The energy here is that people don’t want to just survive – they want to come out of this and thrive.”

Summing up her address on how to help get a richly diverse workforce in tech, Debbie highlighted that diversity is not just about providing equal opportunities for all – it is beneficial for businesses, a sentiment that was echoed in the recent SELEP AGM.

The Digital Skills-focused afternoon portion of the conference heard from George Anibaba at Kent Surrey Sussex Academic Health Science Network on tackling digital exclusion. David Taylor of DNAsix and working group lead for the DSP’s support to SMEs, gave a talk on supporting SMEs with digital progress.

To round off the day, delegates heard an update on apprenticeships and T-Levels, the Kickstart funding before hearing more from SELEP’s own Louise Aitken and Jo Simmons on the LEP’s £4.4 million Skills and SME Support COVID-19 Recovery Funds.

Speaking after the event, SELEP Chair Christian Brodie said:

“Despite these challenging times and tough working conditions for some industries, we hope that this conference has highlighted the sectors that we can all help to thrive by supporting those who need access to – and indeed are asking for – skills training. It has been inspiring to hear from such a varied range of speakers – experts in their fields – who are all working together to achieve this common goal.”

SELEP Skills Lead Louise Aitken said:

“We’re thrilled that so many colleagues from across the LEP were able to join us today and hear from a range of speakers and sectors. The high level of engagement and discussions around the virtual tables also illustrates what a proactive area this is and with a wealth of work already underway. We’re very lucky to be working with such talented and committed individuals for our SAP and DSP too. We hope that our forthcoming Skills South East website will help showcase much of this great work and that our COVID-19 Recovery funding will help to address some of the gaps we heard about today.”

DSP Co-ordinator James Wilkinson added:

“I’m heartened by the message that came out strongly throughout today’s event, whether from our speakers, through audience polling, in discussion at virtual tables and in digital chat and Q&A forums or in outlining upcoming SELEP Skills and Business Support funding, that digital skills is a real priority for the South East LEP and stakeholders across the region. It’s clear from partners’ input on the day that not only is there real appetite across the South East to tackle the challenge of raising residents’ digital skills, there’s also an unbelievable amount of energy and expertise to enable us to do so, together.”