Bootcamps are a step in the right direction – but lessons need to be learned from pilots like ours, writes Clare Hatton

The prime minister’s recent funding announcement for digital skills “bootcamps”, which will deliver short IT courses to boost employability, forms part of the government’s commitment to improve the UK’s digital capabilities and to “build back better” from coronavirus.

These bootcamps are being built on pilot programmes run in my combined authority, which represents 12 local authorities and three local enterprise partnerships, as well as in Greater Manchester and other established providers.

But there are lessons that should be learned from our “Beat the Bots” programme in the West Midlands Combined Authority, especially around responding to regional demands.

Introduced in 2019, Beat the Bots was designed for two groups: unemployed people in need of skills and training, and employed people in low-wage markets and at risk of automation.

We have worked with 20 providers, including colleges, training providers and new organisations such as School of Code and refugee help organisation ACH.

Through full- and part-time bootcamps we covered everything from coding, software development, data engineering, web design and infrastructure with learners.

The first bootcamps have engaged 800 residents, of whom about half were unemployed when they came to us. The majority are still in training, with the aim of getting 70 per cent into jobs upon completion.

So far we have supported 100 of the 107 previously unemployed people who finished the bootcamps into meaningful employment and directed more women and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds into the sector.

We have supported 100 out of 107 previously unemployed people into meaningful work

We are now considering how to use the additional £1.5 million funding to expand our offer and hopefully share what we have learnt.

For those authorities introducing bootcamps, here are some words of wisdom:

1. Work with diverse organisations to attract different groups of people. This will enable you to engage more people with special educational needs, BAME communities, refugees, older people and women.

2. Develop an employer-based approach. Employer-led projects and masterclasses allowed us to look beyond qualifications to develop the training to deliver the skills employers actually need. The result is a programme that employers can reliably recruit from.

3. Focus on your region. Co-designed programmes aren’t feasible if you use a national one-size-fits-all approach. Working with local employers provides a clearer route to employment and reflects regional nuances.

4. Warm the market. Leverage existing relationships by involving both training providers and employers in conversations about the programme’s development to create a more cohesive offering. But also take care to avoid conflicts of interest, given the competitive procurement landscape.

5. Attract expertise. Trainers must be experts in their field and have up-to-date market experience. The additional money to hire these trainers may pose a challenge for some colleges.

More broadly, we would also recommend undertaking reviews of contracting models used. Because we were in a pilot phase, we were able to experiment with smaller grants rather than contract for service and sub-contracting models, in order to minimise and share delivery risk.

But the recently announced funding is limited to using a more standard contracting model, so it would be worthwhile considering joint ventures to provide a degree of flexibility for providers.

At the WMCA, meanwhile, we need to roll the bootcamp into our education budget, to ensure these bootcamps don’t end with the pilot.

Finally, these bootcamps can only be successful through a regional and skills-based approach – and that’s why we are calling for the devolution of the National Skills Fund.

Rather than funding being distributed nationally through the DfE, we believe it needs to go directly to combined authorities in the same way as the adult education budget.

The digital bootcamps are a step in the right direction, but the bootcamps must be managed and funded at a regional level. Then they can really help create a talent pipeline for the 21st century.