Cash will stop IT ‘brain drain’ from Eastbourne

One of the Code Clubs in Eastbourne. Picture by Phil Burrowes, Avant Photographic

One of the Code Clubs in Eastbourne. Picture by Phil Burrowes, Avant Photographic

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It’s hard to believe that in this day and age of modern technology, mobile phones and the like, there is a UK wide IT skills shortage and many people are still bamboozled by email and have never surfed the Internet.

Add to that the fact that businesses say the right people are hard to find and keep with better wages in Brighton and London luring them away from Eastbourne, and the situation isn’t ideal.

But a new group is looking to change all that and a £150,000 cash boost from the government in last week’s round of funding will help its members reverse the trend.

The cash is a small part of the £1.8 million Coastal Communities Fund handed out to the Devonshire ward and was awarded to TechResort, a Community Interest Company – a cross between a charity and a business which can act like a business and make a profit but it must be re-invested in good works – dedicated to boosting Eastbourne’s creative, digital and tech economy.

Its directors are Will Callaghan, who carries out contract work for the Government Digital Service, part of the Cabinet Office and founded and runs un Eastbourne Can, a network of community groups in the town, Adam McNaught-Davis, the head of the Town Team in Eastbourne who runs his own design agency, Lindon East, Dr Aidan Delaney, a researcher and lecturer in computer science at the University of Brighton, Liz Crew, a project manager and also leading the work to re-open the Wish Tower, Mark Hadley, a regional councillor for the RSA and entrepreneur and Shane Mitchell, an RSA fellow and an academician at the Academy of Urbanism.

Will Callaghan got the group together back in spring 2013 with the group of like minded people who all had some connection with the creative and tech industry.

“I’ve worked in IT most of my career and seen how it’s grown,” said Will.

“Most of the young people I’ve met taught themselves. They were interested in design, computers and tech and wanted to experiment.

“But today there’s a UK wide IT skills shortage. One study says we need 300,000 extra recruits over the next five years.

“We talked to a lot of local creative, digital and tech businesses and they mostly said the same thing. The right people are hard to find and hard to keep. The minute they get an opportunity in Brighton or London, they leave.

“If some of our brightest kids leave, how can that be good for Eastbourne?

“I’d heard about places that had launched projects to help their young people develop creative, digital and tech skills. Brighton’s done some work on this, and there’s a lot of examples in the States.

“They’re mostly places that have plenty going for them and, if you think about it, Eastbourne has too. It’s on the doorstep of the Downs, amazing seafront, go-getting people and good schools.”

Dr Aiden Delaney says TechResort will help the town’s economy too.

“We decided to set up TechResort to help,” he said.

“We want to help our young people develop new skills and over time help support them to start businesses here. We also want to help existing creative, digital and tech businesses to grow so they’ll take on more students.

“If we get it right, we may find plenty of creative, digital and tech businesses wanting to move here.

“If there’s more good jobs, it’ll boost the whole town. Maybe more of our students will choose to make their lives here.

“None of this is going to happen overnight, but if we can get businesses, education, the University of Brighton, and local government pulling in the same direction then it ought to happen.

“This can seem very bewildering to people, particularly if they’ve never used a computer or the Internet. We want to help those people get online if they want to and help make sense of it of it all.

“The money we won last week will help us start to do that.”

Already Code Clubs – where children are taught how to program by showing them how to make computer games, animations and websites – are running in the town thanks to IT teacher Donna Comerford, who won funding from the Arts Council last year to help get them set up.

The Towner has also been supportive with one Code Club student Theo Pilbeam now writing software for them.

Penny Shearer and Mark Greco at Sussex Downs College, Philip Johnson at Locate East Sussex and Cohub, the co-working space in Commercial Road are all supporting the various projects.

Will said, “Last summer Donna won a modest Arts Council grant and was able to start a fortnightly code club with Aidan.

“Code clubs are popping up around the country where students can get together, learn to programme and create amazing things. Our club was massively oversubscribed and the same great kids came back every week.

“The kit was borrowed, volunteers gave up their time for free. Cohub lent us their space. Everyone pulled together.

“For the last two years Donna has helped Eastbourne students go to Young Rewired State’s Festival of Code, last year held in Birmingham.

“We also started looking for individual students to mentor. We were introduced to Theo, then a 15 year old student from Cavendish and now at Sussex Downs College. He was into computers and his teacher knocked on countless doors around town trying to find him a placement. She asked Adam and I if we could help.

“Theo went on to build a system where Eastbourne events can be beamed to televisions around the town and won a CREST Gold award for great science and tech projects from the British Science Association.

“It was the first internet project they’d ever had. It’s now a separate project of its own, called EBNow and is in eight hotels including the Da Vinci as well as the Crown & Anchor pub on the seafront and Nelson’s Coffee by the station with more screens to follow this year.

“We want to find more students like Theo. They’re talented already, they just need an opportunity.

TechResort has also helped get people together who wouldn’t ordinarily meet. We have a roundtable every quarter for anyone who’s interested in these subjects and wants to join a team effort. We’d had councillors, students, artists, educators and business people come along.

“We’re bringing cutting edge gadgets to Eastbourne for our kids – and big kids – to see and use. Last week we teamed up with Canterbury University to show off an Oculus Rift, a revolutionary virtual gaming headset.

“We’re planning more events this year, including a Minecraft get together in April. We’ve spent a lot of time bidding for money. We’ve applied to the Coastal Communities Fund previously, but were turned down. Last week’s announcement was our first major win and now we can start thinking a bit bigger.”

The £150,000 Devonshire money will pay for teaching more young people how to code – that’s shorthand for writing computer programmes – and while they’re doing that they can also be introduced to other disciplines such as electronics, design and 3D printing to help them be great all round students.

It will also help people who’ve never used computers and the Internet to get started, help creative, digital and tech students find work placements and jobs with local firms, lay the foundations of a fund for great tech ideas and teams. There are many similar funds around the world, encouraging entrepreneurship and new businesses to set up.

TechResort will be looking at the best of them and working out what’s right for Eastbourne.

Much of what will happen is in Devonshire, but it should benefit the whole of the town.

Will says, “We’ll learn a lot and be able to share with partners around town. We’re interested in talking to schools and businesses interested in design and tech. This grant recognises the valuable contribution of our volunteers and allows us to expand our work to students who wouldn’t ordinarily get these kind of opportunities. Over time it’ll make a huge difference to the economy of our town. People interested in getting involved or who have creative, digital or tech skills can visit www.techresorteb.com

“The money we won last week is amazing, but it’s a drop in the ocean. All help will be gratefully received.”