Thoughts from South Manchester Digital Networking Meeting in Stockport
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I attended a South Manchester Digital Network event in Stockport on February 26, 2019, which I found most worthwhile.
After an introduction by Katie Gallagher (Manchester Digital – who were running/ hosting the event) and a few words of welcome from Paul Richards (Stockport Council), Meriel De Lacey of Dentsu Aegis kick-started the event with a 20 minute presentation on organisational culture, leadership and some of the work her company does. Because of time constraints, she said her presentation would only explore the main themes and would not drill down to the minute details. However, it still managed to be relevant, interesting and thought provoking and I think it touched on themes which most businesses encounter or struggle with every so often (~ ‘changing a culture vs reinventing it’; ‘focusing your energies as a business on the people most likely to resist the cultural change’; looking at ‘the kinds of things a company celebrates and why’). What I found most impressive was one of the videos she played to the audience, which appears to be a promotional video of the work the company does, and which I think perfectly encapsulates the constant demand the digital world has on peoples’ time, and the marketing bombardment most of us experience each and every day.
Katie Gallagher then led a panel discussion with Emma Lord (CDL), Gez Daring (KMP Digitata), Chris Sproston (Music Magpie) and Phil Flynn (Thales), all working for Stockport based companies comprising the panelists. The questions asked to the panelists included the kind of challenges Stockport based companies face when recruiting, what they do to keep their talent, and what the respective companies did to keep their employees interested. Katie gave some stats she compiled from several surveys about the skills shortage in the area and what people thought of issues such as the effect of Brexit on businesses.
Good Transport Links
The discussion also explored things which make Stockport attractive, and what could be done to better support businesses already in the area, and to attract new businesses to the Stockport. Phil Flynn mentioned the good transport infrastructure as a positive thing (~ “You can travel to London in 2 hours, and come back on the same day, then fly out to Paris…”), and someone pointed out that this advantage could also be viewed as a double edged sword (~ “Because it’s so easy to get here, it’s also very easy for people to leave…” – so talent is lost).
There were many contributions from members of the audience, and engaging viewpoints worth exploration in greater detail, including one chap who described himself as “born and bred in Stockport”, and who correctly pointed out that comparisons with Manchester were not helpful, but that we should focus on doing what is best for Stockport. Someone on the panel suggested that if Stockport had better eating places, it would invariably attract more people to the Town, a view that was challenged by another person in the audience. A lady who said she ran her business from home said another disadvantage is that there are less evening networking events to choose from, and another person claimed trains into London from Stockport were too expensive.
Re-purposing empty shop spaces
One interesting theme that emerged towards the end of the Q & A session, and which got my attention was the suggestion by one lady that empty shop spaces in Stockport could be used instead to train young people in software and digital skills, helping them maximize their employment prospects. This she said would also help skilled or talented young people with poor academic attainment.
Brilliant idea! One which some people may have thought of at some point. But why stop there? What about using some of such empty spaces as affordable co-working spaces for start-ups which can’t afford office space elsewhere? We could encourage non-profit organisations that help get people into employment, or co-operatives that employ apprentices to rent such buildings on preferential terms? Or just places people can go sit down and talk? What of crowd-sourcing help from local companies to fit out the spaces? Such subtle interventions, although probably not headline-grabbing, would create new jobs and revitalise the local economy in Stockport. Obviously there would need to be many more considerations (insurance, utilities, security, etc.), but my point is a radical or unconventional approach is probably necessary.
Later on after the event had concluded, I spoke to someone who was in the audience, and who holds a senior role at Stockport Council, who informed me that Stockport attracts a significant number of lower skilled people who live in east Manchester, but who commute to Stockport for work, while at the same time lots of highly skilled Stockport residents, commute out to Manchester. The person asked the question “why can’t many of them work in Stockport”? The answer they said was because there aren’t enough highly skilled jobs. They suggested that what Stockport ought to do, is to not only attract new talent, but to also retain more of the higher skilled people who live in Stockport, creating jobs for them within the Stockport area – as opposed to watching them utilise their skills and talents working in Manchester.
As a Stockport resident who has now lived in the area for over three and a half years, after the better part of 10 years in Manchester (I was a commuter to Manchester), it is clear to me that there is quite a lot that can be developed from such interesting ideas. The fact that I now work in Stockport has made a marked difference to my commute time (4 minutes’ drive from home vs the 45 minutes it used to take in peak traffic to get to Spinningfields), and I can attest that the ripple benefits have positively impacted my family life.
I began working in Stockport only last year, when our firm moved to Cheadle Place/ Cheadle Point from 3 Hardman Street. Having worked with many small businesses over the last 10 years, some of the issues explored in the discussion at the event (location, skills / the local talent pool and the convenience or not afforded to an area by the transportation network) can influence strategic decisions most companies make. Thus, several practical steps can be undertaken which I think will have positive and far-reaching effects, and which can help Stockport grow into a more attractive location for new talent.
Obviously, as with most things, there is no quick fix. But in addition to a better transport network, a rich selection of networking events and plenty of new and genuinely affordable office spaces, I think the availability of business incubation centres, business rates relief for businesses which employ Stockport residents, greater investment into more affordable homes, more green spaces, cheaper warehousing, and a better and more diverse selection of eateries, pubs and food outlets will be decisive in attracting ‘top talent’. Further, greater links with Manchester Airport need to be developed, as is a bolder marketing push of the Stockport brand. Also, in an age where ‘flexi-time’ and remote-working are hailed as good for the environment and for people’s mental health, creating skilled jobs that are nearer to get to for Stockport residents can only be a positive thing.
Over the following months, we hope to explore in greater depth some of the critical things Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council and businesses in the area need to consider and act on, so as to help create an enabling environment for new businesses eyeing Stockport as a possible destination where they can establish themselves and thrive; an environment which will benefit us all.