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Island missing out due to digital skills shortage

Business | Published:

JERSEY is missing out on valuable new business because of the scarcity of computer skills in the Island, according to Tony Moretta, chief executive of Digital Jersey.

Tony Moretta Picture: DAVID FERGUSON (21283843)

Mr Moretta was speaking at an event to launch a new skills strategy to fill the existing gaps and help create a thriving digital sector as another pillar to the economy.

‘We see so many missed opportunities in Jersey, where people have, or want to, create jobs and new businesses locally but they can’t find the people with the skills they need,’ he said. ‘So they go offshore and employ people in Scotland, Brighton or Bournemouth, but not in part of our economy.’

These missed opportunities are also not just among small businesses and Mr Moretta said that in the past few weeks a Jersey-based chief executive wanted to create a new local tech business employing 70 people. They could have got over the problem of staff licences but they could not find people with the right skills. The business was set up in the UK instead, where there are many students coming out of university with the necessary qualifications.

In contrast, only 17 out of 1,000 Jersey students a year study digital courses in higher education, and Digital Jersey say this needs to be improved and digital subjects promoted at all levels of education.

However, the launch event for the strategy, which was described as exciting by some speakers, also highlighted the competing pressures and the high cost of a transition to a digital economy. Some speakers saw little alternative to major investment as digitisation is impacting upon all industries, even traditional ones like agriculture where robots could soon be picking crops that immigrant labour does now.

Others in the debate were concerned about adding even further to an already crowded school curriculum, although one digital enthusiast could not understand why French is a compulsory subject at some levels, but computer science is not.

There was also a feeling among some delegates that if there is a large sum of money available for investment in the digital sector, then some of it should go towards other sectors of the economy who also have skill shortages and other problems. Some of these businesses, particularly those in tourism, already offer particular attractions by being in Jersey, whereas the critics say that Jersey has few obvious features of a digital centre of excellence. Those who support that argument believe that the digital skills problem is simply the obvious consequence of living on a small island where all skills are limited.

This argument will have to be won before Digital Jersey can proceed with the core requirement suggested by their advisers, the University of Exeter. The university consultants say that a Digital Skills Academy should be created in the Island to provide the step-change needed to accelerate digital growth. This would offer a dedicated facility where educators, learners ad employers work and react under one roof and create a Silicon Valley-type ‘buzz’. For example, Devon, Exeter and East Devon councils have jointly invested £8m in the Exeter Science Park, which accommodates business start-ups and training run by the university.

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The advisers say Jersey’s Digital Skills Academy should have about 40 units, and room for 125 to 150 staff and cost between £8.1m and £13.2m.

This would almost certainly be a partnership with industry, and funded by a Digital Education Foundation.

Reservations have already been expressed about the cost, and this has been coupled with fears that finding a sit for a digital academy could repeat the saga of the new hospital. It will obviously present the Island with a significant challenge but digital skills need improving in any case and a dedicated academy could play a major role in diversifying the economy and help drive productivity growth. And that is crucial in growing the whole economy.

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