Industry Voices: The Future of Digital Skills Education – how one college is leading the way to tackle the skills gap

by Catherine Langstreth, assistant principal of curriculum and stakeholder engagement at Bolton College

The UK is currently facing a significant digital skills crisis. As technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, there is a growing gap between the demand for digital skills and the available workforce with the necessary expertise.

The video game industry, given its recent valuation at over £7 billion in the UK alone and continuing rapid growth, is unsurprisingly no exception to this development. At Bolton College, we’ve always been prepared for such needs, taking steps wherever we can to try and remedy skills gaps and to prepare our students as best as possible for future employment. It’s why we were an early adopter of T Levels.

T Levels became part of the national curriculum back in September 2020. Equivalent to three A Levels, their unique selling point is that students conduct an industry placement for a minimum of 315 hours across their two years of study. In addition to traditional classroom learning, these qualifications provide students with a work-ready skillset.  

The qualifications are developed in collaboration with employers to ensure that they provide the skills and knowledge needed in their workforce. Further benefits include government funding to cover costs associated with the placement, including set-up costs, equipment and staff training. 

One of the most popular T Levels we offer at Bolton College is in Digital Production, Design and Development. Delivered by industry experts, the course’s programme covers coding, web design and software development, to name but a few. 

The opportunities for students taking this qualification are broad too, they can go straight into higher education, or into employment across a wide and varied number of career pathways. For those interested in careers in the UK games industry, the qualification offers a brilliant opportunity to get a foot in the door. 

One of our existing and most well-known industry partners in the digital industries is Hewlett Packard Enterprise. The tech giant provides placements for T Level students of ours each year, who work across each aspect of the business’ operations. 

Abbie Grindey, HR Generalist at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, is enthusiastic about the opportunity these placements present to employers and learners.

“The T Level placement gives students the opportunity to kickstart their careers by gaining a variety of different employer desired skills to give them that step up into whatever’s next…” said Grindey. “It’s a great way of getting younger talent into the business and I can’t recommend it enough.” 

Speaking to our students, it’s clear that the T Level placement is more substantial than even they might have initially expected. Many expect a secondary school style work-experience, but these are placements that are set up in a specific way to provide learners with meaningful and lasting experiences. 

Seeing the value that students and employers derived from this placement made us look elsewhere to see where we could implement the model. 

September 2024 will see Bolton College’s first ever eSports cohort begin their studies. The course will benefit from cross-curricular input, including modules related to business, information technology, sports, creative media and digital. 

Most excitingly though, is the sector-specific industry placement we’re running for the course. The overwhelming feedback we get from students on our T Level courses relate to the value of their industry placements. It’s why we were keen to implement the model in this course. 

But if we’re serious about meeting this digital skills gap and giving the next generation the opportunities they deserve, then education providers need greater buy-in from employers in the sector. 

This eSports BTEC will offer our students a leg up into a wide range of sectors, but they’re only going to get the success they deserve if employers are willing to try something different and take a chance on the next generation. 

Employers needn’t worry about proposed policy changes to merge A Levels and T Levels into the Advanced British Standard either. These changes, if they happen at all, won’t come in until at least 2033, according to the Department for Education. 

So, for now, it’s critical that we grab these opportunities with both hands to tangibly improve vocational education opportunities for this generation and the next. We know that if we’re going to remedy the digital skills crisis we’re facing, then vocational skills training holds the solution to this issue.

Colleges are always on the lookout for employer partners to help provide our students with industry placements, so if any of the above is ringing bells for you or your organisation, please get in touch to find out more about how our work can complement one another.

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