Identifying the skills to enhance South Devon’s thriving tech sector

Torbay and South Devon is well-known for its tourism and hospitality industry, but did you know that this beautiful area of the South West also contains a thriving tech sector which provides a number of incredible career opportunities?

The new Devon & Somerset Local Skills Improvement Plan (LSIP) has been introduced to give employers the opportunity to have their say on the future of skills in our region.

Our vision is to help businesses gain access to the skills they need and contribute to an industry which already employs nearly 1,000 people in South Devon alone – producing £100 million for the local economy each year.

At the forefront is Paignton’s Electronics and Photonics Innovation Centre (EPIC) – a modern workspace which houses a group of ground-breaking, rapidly growing innovative small to medium enterprises and is the focal point of the Torbay Hi-Tech Cluster (THTC). The THTC also includes international established enterprises such as Lumentum, Coherent, Gooch & Housego and Spirent.

These global leaders in advanced technology are committed to major ongoing investment in our region, focusing on R&D, product design and manufacturing in photonics, microelectronics and satellite communications.

Dr Philip Mitchell, is Vice Chair of the Torbay Hi-Tech Cluster, a Photonics Specialist with Lumentum, and Associate Lecturer with South Devon College.

Lumentum delivers innovative photonic technology based products to accelerate the speed and scale of next-generation optical telecommunications and new evolving advanced technology global market opportunities.

This includes cloud networking and storage, advanced material manufacturing, 3D sensing, clean renewable energy generation, autonomous automotive vehicle applications, 5G wireless evolution, and Internet of Things (IoT) – services and products which are vital to almost every individual and business on the planet.

With the EPIC Centre being located just across the road from South Devon College, and supported by established companies like Lumentum, the Cluster is ahead of the curve when it comes to finding the skills it needs to succeed.

Dr Mitchell explains: “We talked to South Devon College and said we had roles in our Cluster which didn’t have the certain skills they needed, and could they provide that for us?

“We now have a photonics course which we have jointly developed. It’s a short course – 15 weeks, four hours per week – and we deliver it to new hires and aspiring technical professionals within the Torbay Hi-Tech Cluster. This is a very successful collaborative achievement for all, and raises the profile of the Cluster.”

Lawrence Frewin, Principal at South Devon College, has been instrumental in building links with the growing sector and the wider business community as the area grasps the scale of the opportunity.

“Torbay and South Devon is home to the fifth largest cluster of photonics companies in the country,” he explains. “That’s a huge opportunity for us to give a pathway to young people into a highly skilled career, and stop the brain drain from Torbay.

“We’ve introduced an apprenticeship focused specifically on generating a future workforce for the sector locally – it gives these hi-tech businesses the skilled employees they need as well as giving genuinely exciting opportunities for children growing up in Torbay.”

There’s no doubt that the tech industry relies heavily on having experienced people in place, enabling them to stay in Torbay and develop their careers. Dr Mitchell says the new Devon & Somerset LSIP is vital in helping businesses have their voices heard about the future of skills provision.

Businesses have been saying for years about how there aren’t enough of the right sort of skills in the local workforce and need help to raise the profile of the area and the rewarding careers available.

The LSIP aims to work with employers and skills providers to redress that balance and fill any skills gaps which will, in turn, benefit businesses and staff.

Dr Mitchell adds: “There is a real opportunity to get into telecommunications, and if you’re working here in Torbay, you can find yourself a good job, continue to develop your career, and give a lot back to the local economy.

“Where I see the LSIP working is by talking to employers and finding out more about the skills businesses like ours need for the future, as well as providing us with good links into local and national government to highlight what is going on in our region.

“There is a lot more that can be done, and this is a step in the right direction.”