Talent generation and retention is key as Birmingham looks to exploit digital industry success

Birmingham-based technology companies now employ more than a fifth (21%) of the UK’s games workforce, and leading local digital experts have called for talent promotion and educational support to enable the region to help drive regional economic growth.

This was the view of a recent debate hosted by Birmingham Science City, inward investment programme Business Birmingham and Birmingham Science Park. Attendees ranged from SMEs and global developers, to specialist consultants and Government organisations, UK Trade & Industry (UKTI) and Creative England.

The discussion looked how the sector in Birmingham could seek to capitalise on its success so far, to drive economic development and create jobs. A number of themes emerged from the discussion – with the need for a clear focus on talent generation, and the role of higher education in preparing potential future employees, seen as particularly crucial to the success of local gaming companies.

The city is addressing this need by developing specialist education provision for the digital industry. The £25 million Birmingham Ormiston Academy, which opened in October 2011, is the first digital media academy of its kind in the UK – while Gamer Camp, a finishing school for game developers, is run by Birmingham City University and partners with local companies such as Codemasters and Rare Games.

Some 40,000 students in the local area currently study computer science or business each year. However, attendees called for education providers to offer students courses that combine transferable business skills and games development to a greater degree.

Guy Wilday, a games consultant and co-founder of Gamer Camp, said: “Training and skills development are absolutely key for the region’s future as a national digital hub. We have world-class schemes here that really help to match students’ academic work with what the industry needs from them; both are needed to produce a skilled team for local games developers, but we need to make sure that our graduates are ready to enter business as much as being able to make games.”

Neil Parmar, co-founder of technology supplier bluegfx – which has just opened a new office at Birmingham Science Park – agreed, saying that universities need to address a number of challenges: “Universities must be able to keep up to speed with technology advances and offer students access to the latest applications. To really maximise the opportunities for employment when students look to enter the sector, it is vital to shape their abilities to the needs of employers.”

However, retaining local graduates requires more than strong education provision – a vibrant network of employers and a support system for growing businesses and entrepreneurs is also needed, according to Dr David Hardman, CEO of Birmingham Science Park: “The growing number of start-ups, as well as the many established digital businesses in the region, is creating a widely acknowledged digital community that is helping to attract investment and entice creative talent here. It is imperative that Birmingham’s business infrastructure, information channels and educational institutions dedicate significant support to what is a very important sector to help us drive regional economic growth and job creation.”

A number of new economic initiatives and developments have been designed to support the growth of the city’s digital industry, identified by Business Birmingham as a key sector to attract inward investment. Birmingham’s city centre Enterprise Zone is set to transform the creative industries, ICT and digital media sectors by introducing measures such as business rates relief, improved digital connectivity and relaxed planning to provide flexible working spaces.

In addition, an IT, electronics and communications (ITEC) park in Longbridge – one of the city’s new economic zones – will provide bespoke shared facilities for businesses looking to locate in the city, matching Birmingham’s spatial and economic planning for the digital community.

Ian Taylor, Commercial Director at Marketing Birmingham, who chaired the debate, summed up the discussions: “The digital sector is an integral part of the region’s economic growth strategy and warrants real focus and support. We must work even more closely with the higher education sector so that the needs of the digital sector and our graduates are more closely aligned, and continue to showcase the world-class businesses that are based around Birmingham, to attract the best staff from across the globe.”

The roundtable attendees were:

Ian Taylor, Commercial Director, Marketing Birmingham (Chair)
Dr David Hardman MBE, Chief Executive Officer, Birmingham Science Park
David Bozward, CEO, dojit games
Cliff Dennett, CEO, Soshi Games
Caroline Howes, COO, PlayMob
Guy Wilday, games consultant
Bineet Desai, International Trade Adviser – ICT & Digital Media, UKTI
Neil Parmar, Company Director & Co-founder, bluegfx
Jim Farmery, Director of Business Development, Creative England
Craig Duncan, Senior Studio Director, Rare Games