Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen has welcomed proposals by Vodafone to help towns and cities attract and retain more graduates to stay, live and work across the region.

Telecoms company Vodafone argues that towns and cities outside London have to be able to compete on a level playing field to attract and retain highly qualified workers who will be at the forefront of Britain’s digital revolution.

Speaking at the launch of the report with Vodafone this morning, Mayor Houchen discussed how he is working to help keep digital talent in the area and attract new companies and individuals.

He said: “Along with our region’s excellent digital sector, I am turning ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain gain’ head-on. This includes robust apprenticeship and skills schemes both announced and in the pipeline to inspire new generations and enhance the expertise of people in work or looking.”

The report includes a number of ‘brain gain’ policy proposals, such as an audit of buildings which could be converted into low-cost offices for digital start-ups, commitment by universities to allow students to use their buildings to start businesses for a year after graduation and allowing Apprenticeship Levy funds to be used for retraining and upskilling returnees.

Mayor Houchen added: “We are rightly proud of our digital firms, which are forward-thinking and engaging with Teesside University and other colleges to help develop home-grown talent vital for future success.

“Middlesbrough’s Boho Zone and new and upcoming research facilities such as the biologics-focussed National Horizons Centre at Darlington’s Central Park are helping change perceptions of our area, helping to attract and retain talent in the future and helping to support this vital growing sector. Ideas outlined in Vodafone’s study will only encourage the industry to bloom.”

The report, titled ‘Brain Gain: How to attract, retain and reconnect digital talent’, commissioned by Vodafone and authored by Steve Hughes, a former Bank of England economist, also highlights the challenge that regions across the country are facing when it comes to keeping hold of their graduates.

Analysing the most recent data (2015/16) from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA), the study found:

  • Over 100,000 men and women have left the regions they lived and studied within six months of graduating to start work
  • Over 1 in 5 of those graduates (just over 30,000) end up working in London
  • Every region of the country suffers from a ‘brain drain’ of workers with 5,295 – or just over 4 in 10 – taking up jobs outside the North East within six months of graduating

The report – based on a series of in-depth interviews with combined authorities, business groups and digital innovators in Greater Manchester, Tees Valley and the West Midlands – does paint an encouraging picture of ground-breaking digital initiatives across Britain. However, it warns that these regions will struggle to fulfil their digital potential without a ready and available supply of talent.

The paper also says that upgrading the country’s digital infrastructure will be at the heart of encouraging those people to want to live, begin careers and start up their own businesses in these towns and cities. Vodafone recently announced a deal with CityFibre to provide gigabit-capable full fibre broadband to approximately 12 cities, reaching one million homes across the UK by 2021. The company says it will do more, provided a more competitive and simplified policy and regulatory system existed. It urges politicians to create a national full-fibre plan and boost funding for 5G test beds and to force BT to open up its ducts and poles to competitors.

Nick Jeffery, the CEO of Vodafone UK, said: “Tees Valley is ideally placed to be a world leading digital centre. It has a rich industrial heritage and outstanding businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators. However, for the region’s towns and cities to realise their full potential, we need to create the right conditions for success: a pool of digital talent, underpinned by infrastructure investment that helps to attract people and businesses who can drive greater economic growth.

“Part of the challenge requires turning the so called ‘brain drain’ of talent into a ‘brain gain’. This must start in schools and continue through to colleges and universities. It also requires getting people to move to the area. Places need to have other pull factors which make them attractive for digital entrepreneurs to locate to the area, for digital companies to flourish and for those on a career break to reconnect with the labour market.”