How can we make a career in the North’s tech industry open for everyone?


By Tristia Harrison, Chief Executive Officer at TalkTalk

Success demands luck as well as judgment.

We knew when we moved our HQ from London to Salford five years ago the North West region was already positioned for great things.

World famous Universities. Alumni who tended to stay. A cultural heritage bar none. Good ambitious local government. Favourable geography and infrastructure. And, of course, the famously resilient, funny, independent minded people.

However, we could never have quite predicted how high the North West star would climb, because, for sure, there is no better place in the UK to run a business right now. There has never been a better time to be in the region.

Greater Manchester is the fastest growing tech hub in Europe, and a place Lonely Planet recently said the city was not to be missed as a tourist in 2023.

The mixture of a vibrant city like Manchester, with great accessible places to live across the North West region, is a potent mix for a tech company like ours. And many others clearly think so too. Government departments, regulators, large tech companies, professional services firms and start-ups are all setting up HQs or big new offices here.

However, there is a danger. One that comes with every fast growth spurt. The risk is that we don’t build the fundamentals, and we fail to take everyone with us on the journey. We need to include everyone.

There are around 2,500 new tech jobs coming to our region in the next two years, but there’s a danger there aren’t enough people to fill them. How can this be? In the current economic climate, surely people will move mountains to come and find the work. It’s a simple answer.

Because although these are great attractive jobs, we can’t keep relying on the same recruitment pools. There simply aren’t enough of the usual suspects to keep the tech industry afloat in 2022, and nor should we – even if it’s the easiest thing to do.

Companies like ours will wither on the vine if we try to solve new problems with old mindsets and ideas. We are migrating our four million customers from copper wires to fibre optic cables. It’s hard, harder than any company in our industry thought it would be. It’s like exchanging a horse for a motorbike. Faster, and needing a whole new set of rules, language and skills.

TalkTalk HQ in Salford

You can’t do that only recruiting people who’ve worked in the industry for 20 years. They won’t always ask the right questions – or think of a new way. We need to be recruiting from all backgrounds. Not just because it’s the fair thing to do – which of course it is – but also because it’s a business necessity. So how can we get new types of people in?

I wish it was always a really fast quick process – like turning on a light switch. Sometimes it is – take the Kickstart scheme-the Government’s initiative to get young people on universal credit into work after the pandemic. We took on over 100 Kickstarters during COVID – many of whom still work for us now. A great example of innovation out of necessity from government.

Both the government and the opposition are putting skills and innovation at the centre of their economic plan. It has to be a government priority, because bringing in new talent streams is a project that takes passion, time and effort – three things that are the hallmarks of education – and that’s where we have to look. Our education system will be the thing that brings the so called non-obvious talent from the back to the front of the queue.

Analysis by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership last summer found that the attainment gap between north and south was growing both at GCSE and A-Level.

And last week Guardian analysis of census data revealed a worrying north-south skills divide, with nearly half (46.7%) of people in London holding a degree or similar qualification (level 4 or above) compared with less than a third (28.6%) of those in the north-east. The figure is 35.8% for the south-east.

This is deeply worrying for businesses like TalkTalk, not to mention a serious problem for Northern productivity. We cannot unlock the North’s full economic potential without addressing fixing these divides – and locally-led initiatives are proving extremely effective in this area.

Kickstarters at TalkTalk

We are one of the main corporate partners for UA92, just a mile or two away from our HQ in Salford. I would say it has started a quiet revolution in how we educate our children and young adults.

Schools are teaching basic coding – which is brilliant to see. But by and large the technical and “business” education we are giving our young isn’t keeping up with the pace of change and the development of the industry. That’s not the case at UA92. It’s taken a practical, results-orientated approach to solving this problem.

A question they have asked themselves mirrors many of the problems we see in business. How can we attract more than our fair share of students who had free school meals, at the same time as equipping them better for the world of work than other universities often do?

The answer they have found is by introducing several innovations to give people who aren’t the usual suspects the best chance for success.

Studying at the same time of day – morning or afternoon – to allow you to work. Having six start dates a year. Working with modules not final exams – which mirrors far more the way businesses work. Having a business mentor for every student. Trialling new things like digital apprenticeships. Taking affordability seriously.

We are proud to be a partner of UA92. We provide guest lectures, work experience placements, and mentoring to students – as well as sponsorship to students and subsidised broadband.

UA92 readies their students for the workplace not just in technical skills, but also in character, personal organisation and process management – combining the “soft” and “hard” aspects of everyday business life.

We are well aware that, on our doorstep in Salford, we have thousands of young people who could potentially come and work for us. Not enough do. Part of fixing that is the direct responsibility of business, not just of higher education institutions.

We work with schools in our area. Ten women in our company mentor ten girls at a local secondary school. A direct relationship is so important. We also work with the EY Foundation to provide employability workshops for local school children who are in receipt of free school meals.

We are part of the North West Tech Talent Consortium – a group of tech companies who work together to address the challenges we face around supply and demand in tech talent in the city region. Businesses, universities and other organisations are collaborating as never before in the North West.

Our corporate motto is “For everyone”. It was originally conceived to state how feel everyone should have access to good quality broadband. Our success of the business was built on challenging the status quo.

We shocked our industry back in 2003 by giving away broadband if you already had a landline with us. However, it allowed people to get online who previously couldn’t afford to do so.

If we take a similar innovative approach to skilling our young people for the workplace – it will be good for business, and good for society too.

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