leeds.tech / features

Welcoming a New Generation of Tech Talent for Leeds

The world is changing. It’s the message coming loud and clear everywhere we look. Acceleration. Transformation. Reinvention. It’s happening faster than ever – the only question is whether we move with it or we’re left behind.

It might sound like fighting talk, but this is the reality of the world in 2021; and with the pandemic forcing businesses and individuals to make changes in a matter of days that might have taken months, survival and success is about being equipped for what’s next.

Enter Generation, the social enterprise helping people overcome barriers to employment by upskilling them for the jobs society needs most. The organisation runs demand-led programmes across 26 professions in four sectors, with a big focus on technology as a result of the industry’s widening skills gap. This year, Generation has landed in Leeds, where it has bold ambitions to support 5,000 people over the next three years. As the snow falls in sharp flakes on a grey mid-February afternoon, I open up Zoom to talk to Michael Houlihan, CEO of Generation, and Stuart Clarke, Director of Paceline, about exactly what this means for our City and beyond.

“We look for situations where there are skills gaps or employer challenges, understand at a deep level what it takes to be great at those jobs, and build programmes around the requirements of the role,” Michael tells me, explaining how Generation’s 12-week programmes offer transformative experiences designed to create social impact. It’s clear that this kind of boot camp model offers wider-reaching benefits – to unemployed people, to employers, to government and from a wider social mobility perspective, as people from diverse backgrounds are increasingly able to access new jobs.

When I ask Michael why he thinks the skills gap is so prevalent in the UK tech industry right now, his answer puts Generation at the crux of its solution. “It’s all about the rate and pace of expansion. The existing training infrastructure in the country just can’t keep up,” he says, adding that current university and apprenticeship systems don’t have the capacity to train enough people for the jobs of the future. The tech sector is anticipated to create two million jobs by 2025 – think coding, software, data and cloud – but if new models and programmes aren’t put in place, the UK won’t be able to take advantage of that incredible opportunity.”

Luckily for young people in London, Manchester, Birmingham and more recently Dublin and Leeds, Generation offers a proven alternative for those who might otherwise face barriers to employment. Since 2015, it’s trained 40,000 people, with a completion rate of 95 percent and 80 percent of candidates successfully placed in jobs.

Michael puts that exceptionally high rate (roughly double that of the average charity sector training provider) down to the demand-led nature of Generation’s programmes. “This is not generic skills training,” he says. “Engaging employers is at the core of what we do. We focus on the skills required to succeed in a job, and try to make the pathway as clear as possible.”

If Generation’s tailor-made, insight-driven approach is one thing that sets it apart, the people it targets is another. The organisation focuses on unemployed youth (90 percent of its students are between 18 and 29), with half of candidates having been without work for six months or more. Around a third of people on Generation’s boot camps were eligible for free school meals, and 75 percent are from BAME communities – groups with higher levels of unemployment nationally. 

“It’s important for us to support underrepresented groups who might not otherwise have access to these kinds of jobs,” Michael tells me, emphasising how diversity is so much more than a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. “When people come to the table with different life experiences, ideas and ways of thinking, it all adds up to a stronger organisation – one that people feel prouder to be part of.” His words echo that sense of progression and enablement at the core of Generation’s philosophy; this isn’t just about creating new skills, it’s about changing mindsets, creating new systems and showing the world that a better way of doing things can exist.

So what does this mean for Leeds? Generation’s presence here is two years in the making, the time it took to undergo a rigorous process to determine how the social enterprise could help. After deciding that, because of the energy in the City and the clear mismatch between its great jobs and the people unable to get into them, Leeds could reap the benefits of Generation’s programmes, the European Social Fund funding was secured and the first students recruited. The aim is to run eight ESF funded cohorts of 25 people this year – all in carefully chosen professions with clear skills gaps.

When I ask Stuart why this is such a promising moment for the Leeds City Region (LCR), he tells me Generation’s work has the power to inspire new networks to engage in ways they might once have thought impossible. “We’re seeing two-tier growth, keeping highly qualified graduates in the City and giving them good, well-paid, skilled jobs,” he says, “but we haven’t always shared that growth and wealth. Lots of companies haven’t known how to go to parts of the City that have been underrepresented in the tech sector.” With Generation’s help, that discrepancy should begin to close.

It’s a bright moment for LCR, and one much needed after a year of such uncertainty and challenge. When I ask Michael what he notices about the energy here, his words are refreshing and personal. “Every time I’ve gone [to Leeds] I’ve felt a really strong sense of ambition and community. The tech community consciously makes time to collaborate and get together, partly to have fun, partly out of a collective desire to help the LCR become what it could be.” Add to that the buoyancy of the economy, the volume of companies with jobs and the burgeoning nature of industries like tech and healthcare, and the stage is certainly set for a bright Generation Leeds relationship.

The first class will start in April, with a focus on customer service roles to align with the growing demand for consumer-facing skills. A software development programme will follow in May, with further courses on cloud computing and data engineering in the second half of the year. Enabling remote working was always part of Generation’s plans, but with Covid, that ambition has been accelerated, with a mixture of Zoom lessons, digital chat and self-paced learning facilitating the programmes.

As the minutes slip towards evening, talk turns to the future. Alongside the focus on tech, Generation has present and future plans to run programmes with the NHS and in the green sector – training roles from nursing assistant and healthcare support worker to solar panel installer retrofit evaluator. It’s an exciting time to be tech-minded in Leeds, and a welcome moment of positive forward reflection. Our conversation drawing to a close, and I comment that this feels like the embodiment of the future. “Yes,” replies Michael. “It has to be.”

To find out more about Generation and how to get involved, head to www.generation.org. If you’re an employer in Leeds and want to know more, feel free to drop Michael a line at michaelh@generation.org.

Image:  Michael Houlihan (l) and Stuart Clarke, provided by Generation and Paceline respectively.