northern powerhouse

Back in the days when I was a respected young professional, well before I had the delusions of grandeur and the audacity to become an entrepreneur (that’s entreprenoor up North) my career was very much intertwined with education and skills.

I was asked to join the board of ENERGUS in Workington, Cumbria whilst we were supervising the construction of a £21.5m facility to train apprentices for the nuclear industry. I’d also spent far too much time at Manchester University and at the time I was also back at the place studying an Executive MBA part time.

I was campaigning very hard to get Microsoft on-board with ENERGUS and had them lined up to become a Microsoft Training Academy, I desperately wanted to see more IT and software development skills in my home town – maybe so that the future nerds, like me could have somewhere to go and develop their skills in the area. Unfortunately, the Executive board didn’t share my vision. Not that I lost much sleep on the matter, they didn’t last in the organisation long after either!…

A friend of mine who was a couple of years older than me at school got in touch after my last blog on the Northern Powerhouse.

My pal weirdly went off and did the same undergraduate and postgraduate as me at Manchester – not that I followed him, we just happened to pick the same courses. He’s made good in business and developed a thriving technology and software business over in Asia.  I am constantly being warned by my doctors that being an entrepreneur in the UK is hazardous to my health.

He’s constantly telling me that given my frustrations of the UK then I should really go and be part of the Asian tiger economies where my ideas will be taken seriously and I can make things happen. I have to admit, most of the time, I’m very tempted.

He’s in agreement with a lot of what I said in the previous article and although I did a quick nod to skills – he suggested that I maybe didn’t make a big enough play on it.

You see the problem my friend had, bringing back investment from Asia into the UK, was that he created new software development jobs around Leeds and had a number of applicants – all Indian’s, in India. It’s unbelievable to think he had the jobs to create, but there were no suitably qualified and experienced candidates to fill it.  This is software development, I thought as a country we were reasonably good at that.

Another business contact I have in software is also having the same problem and using them too.  So I’m confident he’s not alone.

There is no quick fix to this situation – unfortunately, the drives to get people programming on their Raspberry Pi’s are going to take years to produce graduate levels of technology savvy developers. Degrees take three years and really – my take on the matter is you’re no good unless you’ve got a fundamental interest in technology that’s borderline a life long obsession.  I’m not sure whether it matters what degree you have to be in IT, but certainly that underlying interest needs to be there.

I remember we once worked with an apprentice who wanted to work in IT as his father had told him it was a good industry to get into.  The desire to find things out, push himself, we tried hard to develop in it him – but I’m not sure that’s something that can be trained or gifted.  You’re either a nerd or your not.

My biggest problem however, is with the Northern Universities. I personally can speak most knowledgeably about Manchester University. The amount of degrees and money spent with the institution, you’d think I’d be on speed dial with their most senior people.

Alas, no, reaching out to anyone there – in my case to partner with Computer Science to look at machine based learning algorithms in business process management. Even to work with the business school on new methodologies for business process improvement. I’ve tried a few routes, employer engagement email address and even directly to senior people and everything has always fallen flat.

The only contact I get is from the Manchester Business School careers service trying to give me placement students. Personally, I’d like a bit of a flirtation, a few dates or even a coffee and a chat before I make such a commitment.  Manchester University trades high on its brand and has an attitude go with it.  SME employers which make up something like 98% of the economy are completely alien to MBS and the University as a whole.

The Universities are very poorly geared to enable them to have a conversation with SME’s and entrepreneurs, the environment that they work in plus the people they employ leave them really unable to start a lasting dialogue.

I note places like MMU and Lancaster University are really coming across as more business friendly. However, what I see with Manchester and the other Red Brick institutions is such a stoic concentration on their new core business of education of foreign students that their local areas are really insignificant. The Manchester University brand carries, globally, much like the aspirations for Northern Powerhouse brand.

I really get the impression that both the Red Brick institution brand and that of the Northern Powerhouse is simply there to attract inward investment from multinationals based abroad.

This doesn’t solve our problem for the majority of British businesses wanting to work in the Northern Powerhouse. The skills, well they’re probably not going to come from the places where they should do. In my case, I was probably right trying to offer bolt-on courses to apprentices in software development, shame nobody listened at the time.

I dare say moving forward this is how industry will have to start tackling the skills shortage in technology.   We’re on our own and industry will have to work hard to drive it.  I’d also like to think we could come up with some creative solutions in getting people who have lifelong tech interests into the industry from other sectors.

It’s sad to think that the North with its proud industrial heritage where the pioneers, the entrepreneurs of both Science and Industry have left a legacy of institutions that are better geared to support the limited number of multinationals.  This is completely at odds to the entrepreneurs who used their own money to found the likes of the University of Manchester.

The greatest irony of all is to consider, that whilst the UK Universities are getting a waning proportion of tax payers money, we cannot ignore that it does still exist.  So why do they wish to support disproportionally multinationals and foreign students who haven’t paid into the tax system.  I wouldn’t advocate that they ignore this revenue stream and continue their growth into foreign markets – but how about a little help for the British companies and entrepreneurs.  It starts with a dialogue about what skills we want.

And whilst that’s a nice thought, I dare say I have more chance of ending up in Asia developing the same ideas and concepts I wanted to do in the UK.  You’ll recognise me though, I’ll be the one in the flat cap.