Over 80 academics, regional stakeholders and digital experts gathered at Coventry University last week to discuss how the Midlands can create a digital workforce fit for the future by working together.

The digital partnerships conference was hosted by Midlands Enterprise Universities (MEU), a leading group of universities which aims to bring together the private sector and universities to capitalise on digital opportunities.

Lloyds Bank reported recently that fewer than half of SMEs in the East and West Midlands have the basic digital skills that could drive growth.

Delegates were welcomed to the event by the Vice-Chancellor of Coventry University, Professor John Latham, and treated to speeches from two leading digital experts: Dr Mike Short CBE (Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department of International Trade) and Sarah Windrum (CEO of Emerald Group).

In his keynote speech Dr Short, who helped develop text messaging as CEO of Telefonica in the 1990s, told the audience: “The world is going digital at such a fast pace so there’s a world of opportunity in digital technology. In order to capitalise on it, the Midlands must build on local advantages.”

He went on to applaud MEU for the work it’s doing to help fill the digital skills shortage.

“There’s a global skills shortage in the digital sector with a lack of programmers and data scientists, but MEU is well placed to help fill the shortage. Businesses need to access a wider talent pool to keep up with digital change, so I applaud the MEU for the work it’s doing,” he said.

Delegates also heard from MEU’s universities – Birmingham City, Coventry, Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham Trent and Wolverhampton – about the work they are conducting in the digital sector.

To finish off the conference, Sarah Windrum from Emerald Group, an IT company in Leamington Spa, took questions from the floor about the digital challenges facing the UK.

When asked about the challenges in technology, Sarah said: “The research and creation of technology is exciting, but one of the primary challenges is the application of it in the workplace.”

“If we don’t tackle the issue around digital skills now, our region will continue to lag behind the rest of the UK and not reach its true potential.”

Sarah said she wants to see more digital leadership in the Midlands, commenting: “I’d like to see some more digital leadership in the Midlands so more businesses know about the benefits of technology.

“Digital technology has the ability to serve back office functions as well as front office functions. More people need to know this and how it can help their business.”

Jenny Kenning, MEU Director, said: “This has been a wonderful event and I’d like to thank all the speakers and delegates for their time.

“Digital technology presents a wealth of opportunity for SMEs in our region, but with it comes many challenges, including access to the right skills.

“With our universities’ experience and innovative learning models, the MEU is best placed to help create a strong and sustainable digital workforce for Midlands businesses to access.

“If we don’t tackle the issue around digital skills now, our region will continue to lag behind the rest of the UK and not reach its true potential.”

Midlands Enterprise Universities is actively working to support the Midlands Engine’s growth plans to increase the region’s economy by £34bn by 2030.