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Training and Development

Accenture man wants to make north-east England an IT hub

Bob Paton is not your average person honoured by Her Majesty the Queen by being made a Commander of the Order of British Empire (CBE) in the New Year’s Honours list. Now in his late 50s, he was brought up in Ashington, a coal-mining town near Newcastle in north-east England that’s known for giving the world sporting stars such as footballers Jackie Milburn and brothers Bobby and Jackie Charlton, as well as cricketers Steve Harmison and Mark Wood and the ‘Pitmen Painters’ group of miner-artists. Paton left school at 15, without qualifications.

However, at a time when the north-east was on the eve of being pummelled by unemployment, redundancies and closures to its pits, steelworks and shipyards, Paton found work, more by accident than design, as a computer programmer, writing COBOL code on an ICL mainframe. He had joined the civil service and answered an internal advert for the role, not knowing exactly what it would entail but enticed by the extra £1,000 annual salary. In the early 1990s Paton moved to Accenture (then Andersen Consulting) as the IT services giant had big government contracts locally.

In late 2009, by then an Accenture veteran in its northern outpost, he was asked to find a home for a new UK Delivery Centre, providing technology solutions for clients outside its national base in London. For reasons practical and, you sense, emotional, he chose his home region. Later he became the Delivery Centre’s managing director, a job he still holds today. In 2000, Accenture had over 200 staff working in the Newcastle area and today it has over 650.

But it is for his work fostering IT skills in the area that Paton was honoured. He has a long CV in contributing to schemes that help young people learn new abilities and he is a staunch believer in the importance of developing IT skills in the region. In 2012 he set up Accenture’s North East Apprenticeship Programme which combines IT training at a local college or university with learning on the job. Apprentices who complete the three-year programme receive a foundation degree and the chance to work at Accenture.

Perhaps uniquely, those apprenticeships do not require the student to have any formal educational qualifications. Accenture also supports coding clubs in primary schools and it is Paton’s belief that if you catch them young with IT, you have the chance of keeping them for life.

“I’ve had a pretty successful career but I left school at 15 without any qualifications and by chance I ended up as a computer programmer,” Paton says, speaking by phone to me with a distinct Geordie accent although not (on this occasion at least) the Pitmatic dialect that still survives in Ashington.

“I’m a great believer that everybody has something. We just ask for two things [at Accenture’s apprentice scheme]: an interest in IT and the right attitude.”

 

Vocation, vocation, vocation

He takes a vocational view of education and is one of the powers behind plans to create a college in Newcastle where students will be able to spend 40% of their tuition time studying IT between 14 and 16 and then the majority of their time between 16 and I8. The scheme is in association with the Baker-Dearing Educational Trust that supports ‘university technical colleges’ as an alternative to traditional schools. Recently approved plans call for a Newcastle UTC college to open in September 2017.

“To me, it’s about creating the workforce of the future,” he says. “Schools and colleges do a great job in educating but we have to build on that baseline they create. We don’t just want people, we want skilled people and we need to tell people there are jobs out there. I have a simple view that we will have more people joining IT if they study it at GCSE [16-year-old exam level]. There’s a whole bunch of people [for whom] the National Curriculum [the UK’s framework for school education] might not be the right route.”

 

Northern powerhouse

Twinned with his passion for developing IT skills is an abiding love of the north-east where he has lived all his life. The region can provide lower-cost facilities than the jobs magnet that is the south-east and Paton thinks that cost base - together with access to excellent universities, excellent communications links and fine towns, coast and country - can be a trump card for the north.

“Accenture will always be in London but it’s not the most cost-competitive place,” he says. “As much as we’d all like to be on London and south-east wages, we ain’t. And that’s not something we should shy away from; it’s something we should embrace.”

Another interest of Paton’s is the not-for-profit Dynamo, which he founded with local entrepreneur Charlie Hoult to promote the north-east as a tech hub, grow the local economy, support research and development, and help local people to develop skills. The pair’s great minds were working alike and by coincidence each had been plotting his own independent attempt to refresh the local economy.

“We needed to create an IT network within the region,” Paton recalls. “I said, ‘Isn’t that typical? The only time I’ve come up with a good idea someone else has had the same one…’”

(His colleague Hoult adds: “Bob has tackled the complex field of skills training because he is passionate about helping show the world that the people of north-east England are as talented as any. There is an inner determination which cuts through.”)

Although lots of lip service is paid to apprenticeships, Paton says they’re tough programmes to create as employers need to understand how to create and fund schemes, promote them, deal with applications and select training providers. As an example close to home, Accenture spent nine months getting its scheme up and running.

That hard-won experience led Dynamo to another plan to help small and medium-sized businesses fast-track their own apprentice programmes. There are now two hubs in Newcastle and one in the nearby city of Sunderland. (Paton, let the charge sheet read, supports the latter football club, thanks in part to family attachments.) These hubs offer counsel and assistance to any local business that doesn’t have the resources to put in place their own scheme.

 

Local boy

Paton is a north-east man born and raised and an evangelist for a region that is far away from London and still labouring under high unemployment rates and a host of other problems. It’s that strong sense of birthplace and desire to see its people get the best chance of success that have led to Paton becoming a well-known figure in north-east business and, ultimately and via an unusual route, to royal recognition. So what does that feel like?

“The whole thing is quite surreal,” he says when I ask him about the CBE award.

“You know nothing about it. Someone somewhere puts you forward and you never know who it is. You get a letter about a month beforehand. ‘Dear Sir, the Prime Minister has been asked to advise you…’ You don’t hear anything about it for a month and you hope it’s not part of an elaborate wind-up…”

But more important than any award is the chance to help bring back work to an area that has been starved of opportunity and hurt by a brain drain to the south.

“We want to make the north-east a really successful hub,” he says. “What comes first: the jobs or the skills? Unless you have the skills there the jobs won’t come. We know what sort of economy we have: great automotive, great engineering, great technology. What we should have is an education and skills setup that matches our economy. For me, the north-east is the best region in the country from our cities to our countryside and coastline - but we need jobs.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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