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Talent Development: Time for a radical rethink

Paul Durrant, CEO at UK Games Talent and Finance CIC, on looking beyond university to address the UK industry's skills shortage

Six years on from the publication of the Next Gen Skills Review, are we any further towards "transforming the UK into the world's leading talent hub"?

This was the lofty aspiration expressed in Next Gen's strap line, but the answer is 'probably not'. If you dig deep into Ukie's excellent State of Play report (p.24) 87% of businesses hired global talent because UK candidates did not have the right skills. The Brighton roundtable convened for State of Play reported that, "Games degrees on offer in the UK are largely failing to equip students with the specialist skills and professional awareness needed to find entry-level work in the industry."

All this when a full six years earlier Next Gen had said (p.49), "most video games graduates are not up to scratch"

"Presently, there's no alternative within the minds of parents and other influencers to promoting a university route"

Just think how much public and personal funding has gone into UK universities running those courses over that period. Some of that personal funding is sitting as long term debt, too, not to mention the UK Higher Education system's recent achievement in topping the pension deficit charts. It's time to unlock that significant resource with a radical rethink around talent development for our sector.

Presently, there's no alternative within the minds of parents and other influencers to promoting a university route. But with the best-performing applicants automatically securing the best places (and in turn becoming top graduates because, quite simply, quality in equals quality out) what impact does the HE institution actually have? Entry requirements for the top games courses are high and yet the end result clearly isn't delivering what this industry wants and needs. Even accreditation is now seemingly a territorial play rather than a concerted industry oversight mechanism.

It isn't going to be easy. The present system is a big ship to turn around

In the distant past, the so-called sandwich courses that universities and polytechnics ran were valued for the real world work experience they offered, sometimes in a summer break or intermediate year. Now, in this age of ubiquitous digital information and high-performance games development tools, there's a significant opportunity to flip that idea.

"Getting on and doing real projects could provide greater bang for buck than treading water at university"

By all means have some minimal involvement with an HE-type organisation for a couple of months to learn some general study and research skills - but that can become the sandwich filling enclosed by two fat slices of self-directed work experience or self-enterprise. And do all of that without the heavy burden of overheads passed on by universities. The message should be:

  • Ship some games
  • Learn about business models first-hand
  • Understand your customers
  • Learn about real teamwork, hiring and firing
  • Create value and original IP first-hand
  • Be the producer or project manager
  • Build a portfolio of real projects
  • Become a demon freelancer
  • Bootstrap by tapping into the surplus of contract and outsourcing work

Two years of this will either have set you up to work for yourself or your own business, or leave you with a portfolio of stories and skills to help you be selected at a job interview. Using an apprenticeship tag might help with parental recognition, but these self-enterprise aspects need to be part of the mix, and that doesn't always fit with the expectations associated with that A word.

We highlighted this opportunity in our response to the Government's Green Paper for the Industrial Strategy. We believe that a light touch framework around self-direction could be part of the answer, and we're already seeing how some other sectors - such as the big four accountancy firms - are removing university qualifications from their application forms. Broader workforce diversity should also be a result of approaches like this.

"If Brexit constrains talent supply for our sector, failure to deliver home-grown talent this time could prove fatal"

Now is the time for business and support organisations across the UK to seize this opportunity.

At UK Games Talent and Finance CIC, we plan to play our part. We've developed the Tranzfuser model and tested it twice with graduates, so we're ready to capitalise on that learning and experience by expanding real-world work. We already partner with some excellent universities providing local hub support for our Tranzfuser teams. There's potential to build on this work collaboratively in developing a self-direction framework.

Our team has previously devised and run Dare to be Digital with BAFTA and the Ones to Watch Awards, as well as the experience from our graduate talent pool, digital badge scheme and two prototype funds - including the UK Games Fund. We've also developed an entirely new model for a Talent Development Fund supporting a new creative manifesto for development teams as part of the Tay Cities Deal proposition.

All of this has continued to reinforce the notion that getting on and doing real projects could provide greater bang for buck than treading water at university. Most studios we speak with will hire someone who can demonstrate the kind of track record self-direction can deliver, regardless of other qualifications.

As we move towards the Government's publication of the Industrial Strategy later this year we hope to see a radical rethink. This has to include diverting some of the cash invested in HE presently to bolster new and innovative approaches such as the fat sandwich concept.

This needs to happen in a joined-up way across the whole UK, including devolved nations and regions. Our industry is small (in employment numbers terms) and it needs consistency of approach. If we are ever to achieve that original Next Gen vision we need bold, brave innovation in self-directed learning to take us there. Let's hope we're not looking back on a similar failure in another six years.

If Brexit constrains talent supply for our sector in the way some commentators believe, failure to deliver home-grown talent this time could prove fatal.

Tranzfuser will be at EGX 2017 and the GamesIndustry.biz Career Fair, one of several industry events taking place at the show. Others include the GamesIndustry.biz Investment Summit, the Games Retailers Conference, the UKIE AGM, and our first ever Best Places To Work Awards.