Closing the Digital Skills Gap

Posted on: 05 Dec 2019
Posted by: Ben Whitaker

A Dynamic Partnership between Burnley College and Plus24 Marketing.

40,000 is the conservative estimate of the digital skills gap at a cost of £22 billion in the UK1. The work of Project Digital in Burnley is aiming to address this alarming statistic through an industry-led approach to apprenticeship training, which gives learners the best possible chances of success in this dynamic sector.

There is no easy way to admit that as a FE College you might need help in delivering a training course – but that is exactly what the team at Burnley College did when establishing award-winning digital apprenticeship delivery, Project Digital.

Burnley: A Town with a Future

enter image description here

A former market town for 700 years, Burnley has been voted the ‘Friendliest Town in Britain’2, but this was not always the case. BBC News reported in 2001, “The weekend of the 23 and 24 June 2001 saw the east Lancashire mill town in flames as inter-racial violence erupted with attacks on cars, homes and shops causing an estimated £1m worth of damage”3. This time was a difficult one for all involved in education and employment and indeed, those living in Burnley.

Fast forward less than two decades and the town is becoming known in a very different light. Recognised as ‘the best place to make a living’4, the second most successful UK town for digital jobs growth, ‘Britain’s Most Enterprising Town’5 and in 2018 as one of the UK’s Top Tech Towns according to TechNation6, Burnley’s reputation is changing for the better. With this pedigree and innovative companies such as AMS Neve, BooHoo, VEKA and Safran Nacelles locating to the town, it is turning the tide for the opportunities for young people to build their careers here.

It is into this context that Karen Pates & Simon Jordan from Burnley College, and Dave Walker, MD of +24 Marketing, entered in 2017. Founded in Burnley in 2010, +24 Marketing has always been a hub of fearless innovation and has increasingly become a key part of Burnley’s landscape due to its location in the iconic Landmark building1 and its work with Burnley’s charities and Burnley Bondholders. Burnley College, housed in a £100 million campus, graded OfSTED ‘Outstanding’ and a top 10 college in every national league table, has been at the heartbeat of the town for over 100 years. Offering a range of vocational courses, Themis apprenticeships, adult learning, university level courses through University Courses Burnley and commercial training courses, it works with over 5000 learners from a range of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds.


The Vision

enter image description here

What emerged from these discussions was Project Digital. Starting with fifteen Level 3 Digital Marketing apprentices, a dynamic curriculum model was developed where off-the-job learning requirements were covered through attendance at the aforementioned Landmark Digital Centre and in Burnley College’s dedicated Project Digital Hub, kitted out with a Google Jamboard kiosk, BenQ RP Series IFP screens, Apple Macs and a range of Chromebooks to give learners the very best of cutting-edge technology.

The Level 3 Digital Marketing apprenticeship has three elements: Digital Marketing Business Principles, Principles of Online & Offline Marketing and Introduction to Coding. With apprentices having job roles in a variety of areas, ranging from Lister Cars to the East Lancashire NHS Trust and Pendleside Hospice all the way through to SMEs like Zimpli Kids and North West Skills Academy, the model needs to be flexible. Covering topics such as Google Analytics, HTML5 and CSS, Belbin’s team roles and GDPR, innovative and current practice has to be at the core of the offer. Indeed, the team at +24 often tell the apprentices,

“If Facebook change their algorithm today, we as a digital agency have to change our practice tomorrow or we will go out of business.”

This fast-paced industry poses a number of real issues for FE Colleges in terms of keeping up with current trends; indeed, some of the exams the learners have to take already have outdated information in them! Having an industry partner involved in the day-to-day learning has made a real difference to the experience for the learners.

Connor Wickham, Digital Marketing apprentice at WarrantyWise and Lister Cars, commented,

“When I come to Project Digital sessions, I know that what I am learning is industry-standard and my employer is confident that what I bring back to my work will be exactly what is current and needed in our work.”

This has even led to Connor being promoted whilst still studying on his apprenticeship and offered a full-time position therein.

Project Digital is currently delivering to a third Level 3 Cohort and plans are afoot to increase this even further. To date, 47 apprentices have been trained through this model since September 2018.

The Project Digital Way

enter image description here

That said, the curriculum model is not the only element that sets Project Digital apart as a training programme. At the beginning of the apprenticeship, all learners undertake a week-long Industry Bootcamp, where they are set a task in teams to make a return on a £50 investment in a business of their choice (within legal and ethical limits of course!). Throughout the course of the week, they receive creative input on logo design, brand compliance and colour theory from Head of Creative, Rik Holden, and social media collateral tips and training from the social team at +24, as well as an introduction to social media marketing and business planning from Dave and his team. This is coupled with resilience training from Caroline Dakin8, an international trainer who has worked with organisations such as Seddon and the English Football League, as well as a number of educational establishments, and some excellence visits to experts in their fields. In the last few bootcamps, these have included EKM9, UKFast10 and Seriun11, as well as a visit from the International Marketing Manager from The Senator Group12.

One of the highlights has been working on a live brief for BenQ International, where Project Digital apprentices created the full marketing plan and all the associated materials for the company’s presence at the Schools and Academies Show in Birmingham. The apprentices held a video conference with the BenQ marketing and management team from the UK, set clear KPIs and Carla, apprentice at Group First in Burnley, took the lead role. They created a video promotion, social media collateral for three months, including a scheduling plan, graphics and physical literature for BenQ’s own promotion, and they were commended on their professionalism and execution.

Jacob Goggins, apprentice at North West Skills Academy, won Themis Digital Apprentice of the Year and is currently in the running for other regional and national awards for his work in the construction training industry – and he is one of many Project Digital apprentices who have already secured permanent positions with their employers before their apprenticeship is complete.

That digital skills gap in the UK is being tackled one apprentice at a time!

enter image description here


Image 1 – All of our students are given additional design and creative training, including how to use the Adobe Creative Suite. Here Connor is using these skills in his role at Lister Cars

Image 2 – Using the Google Jamboard for real-time collaboration has helped keep all of our apprentices engaged in the learning process. Carla used this tool heavily in her leadership role on the BenQ project

Image 3 – Groupwork and the use of social media branding are key elements that the team at +24 help the apprentices to get to grips with.

Image 4 – Connor has already been promoted during his time at WarrantyWise/Lister Cars, and he uses his photography training almost every day in his role

Ben Whitaker
Ben Whitaker #FE

About Ben Whitaker

Ben is a Curriculum Manager at Burnley College, Lancashire and a Director at Edufuturists. He hosts a podcast of the same name and is a Google Certified Educator, Trainer & Innovator. He was previously Assistant Principal: Head of Sixth Form and a Religious Studies teacher.