We need coordination between old economy job cuts and digital economy job creation

BT has one of its main contact centres in a tower block in Swansea city centre – it’s the highest office building for miles around, just a short stroll to the sea front. From its upper-floor windows you can see across Swansea Bay to the lights and smoke from the giant steel works in neighbouring Port Talbot.

Today we’ve heard that BT is creating 100 jobs in that Swansea office. We also learned that, sadly, Tata is culling 750 jobs at its steel plant across the bay.

If ever there was a situation that demonstrated the benefits of better co-ordination around old-economy job losses and digital economy job creation, it’s exemplified in that South Wales microcosm.

I have no idea how much steelworkers earn compared to BT call centre workers, but it’s certain there will be no local demand for unemployed people with steelwork skills. Surely it’s not that difficult to put some of those redundant Port Talbot staff in touch with BT tomorrow? With some training and new skills, 100 people could move from a declining industry to a growing one.

This is a scenario that will be replicated across the country over the coming years.

We also heard today from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos that its research suggests seven million jobs could be lost as a result of technological developments in major economies in the next five years, part of what WEF calls the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Meanwhile, the European Commission tells us that Europe needs to find a further 900,000 skilled IT workers by 2020.

It’s getting a bit boring writing about this – see here and here, for recent examples – but surely it is not that difficult to achieve some form of co-ordination to take people losing their jobs in one industry and retrain them with skills needed in the technology sector?

You would like to think the government might do so – but there’s no evidence the current UK government has any inclination for such an initiative. You would hope at least that local authorities could team up in their regions to make something happen – but most are focused elsewhere and struggling under austerity cuts. It would be nice to think that big business might take an interest – they stand to benefit, after all. But nothing happens.

We talk endlessly about skill shortages in IT when the truth is we have a training shortage – both in training new entrants from other industries, and in training existing people in IT with the new digital skills that are most in demand today.

Almost every time I write something about IT skills shortages I hear in response from an out-of-work IT expert complaining that they can’t find a job – often it’s because their skills are different from those being recruited by IT employers today. They could do with help in retraining too.

Wouldn’t it be great if someone picked up the phone at the BT office in Swansea – it is a call centre after all, there are plenty of telephones there – and put in a local call to HR at Tata steelworks about those jobs.

Wouldn’t it be even better if there was somewhere every redundant worker could go to be retrained in digital economy skills and help them find a job with a future?

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