Sheffield’s digital boom

The steel city’s historic reputation for metal means you might not immediately associate it with technology, but it is in fact, fast becoming a digital hotspot. In addition to its advanced manufacturing and engineering capabilities, Sheffield has a thriving digital scene, contributing over £2bn a year to the local economy. A digital report from the University of Sheffield cited that the number of digital jobs stands at 21,000 in the region, with a turnover growth rate of 47% a year. (Source: The University of Sheffield).

Tech clusters in the north

Sheffield and the north, in general, is bursting at the seams with tech specialists making significant contributions to the economy, particularly with regards to rail. The “Rail Innovation Eco-System” report from The University of Leeds and University of Huddersfield revealed that in Yorkshire and the Humber, 36 companies have created digital systems to optimise train planning and operations. These 36 companies contributed revenues of £0.4bn in 2018 (source: University of Huddersfield).

Tech savviness within the city

Sheffield has always had a brilliant creative scene and technically innovative culture. Companies such as 3Squared, and many others including PlusNet and WANdisco, that have grown up here have a real affinity with Sheffield, and a dedication to nurturing grassroots talent. It is perhaps the city’s real sense of a tech community as well as the availability of high-quality digital talent from two leading tech-fluent universities that has subsequently attracted larger organisations to locate in the city.

Sheffield’s importance on the northern tech scene is demonstrated by the fact that the city is home to the High Value Catapult centre’s Factory2050 at the AMRC (Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre), and the virtual Digital Manufacturing Meet Ups that explore the impact and reach of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, of which tech is a critical component. Sheffield is truly becoming an increasingly important digital hub.

The steel city also boasts clear buy-in from policymakers with tech-centred bodies such as Sheffield Digital having a strong presence. The Sheffield city trade association works hard to encourage members to work together to achieve a combined voice for the tech sector. From a community perspective, it works to support the tech sector in the Sheffield City Region, and helps individuals by preparing them for jobs in the digital workplace by providing skills bootcamps etc.

It is the passion and drive of organisations like Sheffield Digital and Factory2050 that helps to create a buzz around tech, putting Sheffield on the map as a thriving digital hub. From a rail industry standpoint, Sheffield is also on the cusp of realising the benefits of the Digi-Rail initiative. DigiRail is an ERDF part-funded project which provides innovative support for forward-thinking digital SMEs in rail, located within the Sheffield City Region.

Upskilling the workforce through better transport access

We believe that Sheffield’s digital prominence is due, in part, to its geographical position. Being in the ‘middle’ of the country makes it an attractive location for tech businesses wanting to set up shop there. Being close to larger cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and London means it is easy for businesses to expand into and travel to other areas nearby.

Better still, Transport for North and Northern Powerhouse have strong links with the steel city and are all about better connecting our “metro centres” to ensure that people can access a larger job market through a more accessible and affordable public transport system in turn addressing the north’s productivity and performance gaps (source: Transport for the North). The provision of better-connected transport systems engenders socio-economic mobility. Access to better transport means access to a wider job market, thus creating an increased demand for upskilling the workforce to satisfy the needs of the modern job market, including those needed to design, build and maintain the digital railway that will be Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Nurturing digitally capable talent from a young age

A growing and buzzing hub with an increasing number of tech businesses is no doubt a positive for young people entering the workforce. It is now time to take care as a city and look more closely at how tech sectors can work better together to recruit diversely and attract people who wouldn’t normally think about working in the city or pursuing a career in tech.

This is especially relevant in rail. Now more than ever, the rail industry needs to be working together, collectively, if it is to develop a workforce that is capable of meeting the demands of the digital railway. We know that as the railway continues to digitalise, new jobs and careers will emerge that are unknown to us now.

The industry has long grappled with an ageing workforce, in addition to its struggles to attract enough people with the necessary skillsets for STEM-related jobs. The speed at which digital technology is transforming the rail landscape means that work roles are going to be very different in 5-10 years’ time, making it ever-more crucial that the industry tackles the widening skills gap and recruits the best people for the future of rail.

It has never been so important for the rail sector to make every effort to engage with children early on in the learning process i.e. in schools. There is an ongoing need to make school children aware of career paths that will be available to them and the digital skills they will require. Stereotypically, our younger generations are growing up with constantly evolving technologies and so a workplace that does not require these skills might not be attractive in the first place. But to truly appeal to the future workforce, the current working population needs to better engage and show them the reality of an industry that puts digital capability at the heart of its own development. Engaging with schools to provide meaningful learning, whether that is sharing first-hand experiences, providing contextualised learning or work experience will prove invaluable in preparing the younger generation for emerging jobs.

Strong academic partnerships

Finally, we turn to the role of the Universities. As mentioned above, both Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield University have helped to power the recent wave of economic development in the city and there is a long history of collaborative academic partnerships between both universities and employers. These factors play a huge role in driving innovation and attracting forward-thinking tech start-ups, SMEs and enterprises to locate in the city region. Partnering with universities gives businesses better control over the career development process, ensuring they hire and train the right candidates from the outset.

At the same time, it requires a dual approach. Employers need to work closely with academia and vice versa to ensure that optimum outcomes are achieved for both parties. From day one of graduating, 3Squared’s founders, James and Tim, have cultivated a close relationship with Sheffield Hallam, having established a now 18-year-old company that has constantly nurtured talent from the university. 3Squared also works with Sheffield College to recruit employees through apprenticeship schemes, recognising that attracting, identifying and nurturing skills is not only just about traditional qualifications; technology can also provide a wealth of careers, and through a wealth of education and training paths.

To conclude, Sheffield has developed a strong symbiotic relationship with the tech sector, both as an incubator of a technically innovative community and as an emerging centre of digital excellence that will continue to pull more digitally dependent companies.