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Nearly £1m of EU funding to boost tech skills in UK SMEs

An initiative led by the Department for Work and Pensions will focus on enhancing skills in rural locations to unleash competitiveness in areas such as agritech and biorenewables

The government has launched a call for applications for a programme aimed at increasing the level of digital skills in rural communities to enable greater competitiveness in areas such as agricultural technology (agritech) and biorenewables.

The call issued by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will commission projects funded by the European Social Fund. Approximately £900,000 of European Union (EU) resources are available for the project’s lifetime, which will be guaranteed even in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The York, North Yorkshire and East Riding (YNYER) area will be the regional focus for the initiative. According to the call for proposals, the region is a rural economy where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and micro-businesses account for over 97% of all businesses, but these are often based in isolated communities with limited potential workforce.

Lack of basic digital proficiency is another issue. The Lloyds UK consumer digital index 2018 found that 13% of the working population in Yorkshire and Humber don’t have full basic digital skills, compared with the national average of 10%.

Scarcity of expertise in areas such as coding, robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) is affecting the potential of SMEs to remain competitive and poses a potential barrier to new inward investment, according to the document, as well as continued development of important sectors such as agritech, biorenewables and engineering with increasing automation and robotics use.

Under the digital skills programme, the current skills profile of individual employed people will be assessed and digital skills training provided to update the existing workforce. SMEs will also be supported to adopt new technologies to increase productivity, competitiveness and enable entry into emerging markets.

Another priority under the initiative will be to support SMEs in identifying and evaluating new technologies that could drive business performance and productivity and create access to new and emerging markets, and in identifying the skills barriers within organisations that prevent this.

The deadline for applications is 25 November 2019. Projects are expected to start within three months of the award of the contract and be completed within three-and-a-half years.

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