THE region’s top businesses have been briefed on the importance of education and skills at the North East Chamber of Commerce’s Large Business Summit.

The conference is the only one of its kind in the North East and brings together senior leaders from multi-sector medium and large businesses from across the region.

Speakers presented on pragmatic approaches to apprenticeships as well as the future digital landscape and evolving skills requirements.

Keynote speaker, Siobhan McArdle, chair of the Tees Valley Business Board, shared the Board's three key areas of focus to enhance education, employment and skills in the Tees Valley.

She said: “We’re going to set up industry-led, sector specific action groups. We need a Tees Valley skills strategy at a macro level, that meets the needs of Tees Valley Business.

“Second, we need to define and maintain a Tees Valley map of provision. Working in partnership with sixth form colleges, and further education and training providers, we need to understand who is providing what in terms of our offers, where the gaps are and how are we going to close those gaps.

“Third, we need to develop and maintain a map of funding streams.”

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Rachel Anderson, assistant director of policy at the Chamber, shared information on the Local Skills Improvement Plans and how the Chamber is implementing change to put employers at the heart of the skills system, particularly around digital skills.

Teesside University’s Lynsey Robinson, director of DigitalCity and economic development, talked about the university’s work around embedding digital skills in the community, as well as their new Digital Life building, which will include smart labs and industry-level digital art studios.

The first panel discussion was centred around apprenticeships and was moderated by Simon Merchant, director at Interdigitate.

Panel members included: Brenda McLeish OBE DL, CEO at Learning Curve; Sam Casey, an apprentice from Hartlepool College; Sam Spoors, founder and managing director at Talentheads; Diane Ferguson, regional manager (North East) at Commissioned Rehabilitative Services, Ingeus Justice Services; and Karen Burgess, learning and development specialist at CPI.

Discussions took place around cost and trade pressures on businesses and how they are affecting apprenticeships, as well as measures to connect young people with businesses.

When asked how large organisations can encourage people to apply for apprenticeships, Sam Casey said: “Awareness and apprenticeship days. It’s a culture shock going into apprenticeships from school, so work experience is a great thing for businesses to offer. Also advertising, making sure your company is known to people in the local area.”

Diane added: “We need more apprenticeships and to highlight what a great opportunity they are for young people and in upskilling your existing workforce, and we need to simplify the whole apprenticeship system.

“Schools also need to do more, there needs to be more vocational opportunities and students need more informed career guidance.”

A second panel discussion on digital was moderated by Pulsant’s Wendy Shearer, director of Smart Cities and ecosystems.

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Panel members included Charles Phillips, head of digital at Newcastle Building Society; Frans Calje, CEO at PD Ports, Zoe Lewis, principal and chief executive at Middlesbrough College; Marion Ingleby, head of digital at Durham County Council; and Emma Booth, head of operations at ITEC North East.

Frans said that digital is “incredibly important” to the future of PD Ports, and added on artificial intelligence: “The power of change that is heading our way at lightning speed is profound.

“This is about employers, such as ourselves, taking responsibility to fill the gaps in the digital landscape and finding people with those digital skills. There’s a role for people to monitor and manage the digital transformation.

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“Investment in people is key across the whole business - upskilling our workforce to meet future challenges and support growth.”

Wendy, from event sponsor Pulsant, said: “As a digital infrastructure company, digital skills are at the heart of our business, so we’re delighted to sponsor the Chamber’s Large Business Summit.

“Technology moves at such a pace that we are continuously assessing the skills we have today and how we need to develop those skills to support future business growth, for example supporting edge applications and AI workloads.”

She added: “This event is a great opportunity for us to share our approach to digital skills and learn from other members. Every company needs access to digital skills, whether you’re a tech company or not, so it’s a problem shared across the entire region.”