Profiling the Skills Gateway Advisory Board: Claire Gillespie

Claire Gillespie is the Digital Economy Skills Manager for Skills Development Scotland (SDS).  While she has been with SDS for around twenty years and her current role entails a keen focus on all things digital, Claire’s early career aspirations lay far from the digital world.

Claire began training as a chef to pursue hospitality management but transferred to a business degree hoping for a career with more sociable hours. Through an initial short-term contract with Scottish Enterprise, she started her long-standing career with voluntary and public sector organisations.

At SDS she has had the opportunity to work “through a number of different teams  … but I suppose the golden thread has always been around skills development, so working with organisations and employers to either support them as businesses, or to support the individuals to develop their skills and to help them embark on new opportunities.”

Despite her role Claire explains, “I’m not a ‘techie’… what is important and what’s always motivated me, is that I can see the difference that (digital) skills can make to people.”

What enthuses her about working with SDS is the idea of making a difference to someone’s life, particularly people who don’t realize that the opportunities are there.

“I’m really interested in how we reach disengaged individuals, people who are underrepresented, people who have got additional barriers and who may not be thinking about gaining skills for the digital economy, and how we take opportunities to them,” said Claire.

Claire’s wealth of experience within digital technology skills offers much to the Advisory Board. Working with the SDS Skills Planning Team means she is very passionate about using evidence and research to make sure that we’re making really good quality decisions. When working with the skills partners,  colleges, universities and schools we are using the evidence to help us make good investments with public money, she suggests we’re already making data-driven decisions, maybe without realising it.

She also has extensive experience fostering partnerships with industry, looking for their insight. Claire states, “I think what industry are great at is making us think differently…I’ve got a digital economy skills group which is half industry and half public sector, and it’s a really nice dynamic in that room. Because we come with our skills experience and employers come with great ideas, between us hopefully we do something really impactful.”

A strong partnership means being really collaborative from day one and to the end of a project, something that she believes characterises the partnership between SDS and DDI. Currently the organisations are collaborating on projects including their ‘Live Lessons Programme’, which works with employers to create activities around data that are streamed into schools using online platforms.

The ‘Defend the Rhino’ programme is a successful example that demonstrated how data can be used to promote environmental sustainability, which proved a useful tool for engaging girls in data.

“We have a huge gender imbalance in tech, but quite often young girls are very interested in topics like the environment and the climate emergency. [Save the Rhino] was a great way to blend a non-tech subject of environmentalism with technology.”

She states that SDS are constantly gathering information about the demands for data, including understanding what data jobs are available. They work with DDI to understand why more people aren’t choosing data careers and how to improve the number of participants.

Gillespie suggests that Skills Gateway could create more partnerships with industry. She states, “I think we always need to do more with industry,” and suggests that being very broad about the nature of the industry engagement can be valuable.

“There’s a huge data opportunity in Scotland, but Scotland’s economy is made up of mostly small businesses, so by engaging with those individuals and finding what the challenge is and then creating solutions so they can engage in those data conversations I think would massively help the DDI project, and also massively help Scotland as well.”

As well as diversity in industry partnerships, Gillespie is eager to promote diversity in access to data skills. In a 2020 article for SDS. she called for more efforts to improve access to data skills among neurodivergent people.

She believes that “the biggest piece of progress…is that we are all talking about [neurodiversity] now… It was something people were talking about a little bit, and again some big employers were in that space, but it wasn’t a word that was tripping off the tongue and we had to help educate people.”

“Now if you go to any conference, everyone’s talking about neurodiversity’ and there is more help in education and employment, including Edinburgh-based Auticon and SDS’s own programme around cyber security skills for neurodivergent individuals.”

She states, “I think with a lot of equality issues, people are sometimes too scared to do things…But we need to make sure we’ve got the education behind us…the understanding of what different conditions mean and what different levels of support might mean so we can make really important and well-founded changes.”

The Data Skills Gateway can play a valuable role in promoting diversity, helping expand the conversation around neurodiversity beyond cyber and more into the data spectrum’ and suggests that there have been some good foundations laid by Covid to offer more support for flexible working.

Diversity can also be improved for other underrepresented groups including women, and there’s a big job around awareness raising how we tailor our messages. For example contextualising data usage to show data is used across professions from a range of sectors, or marketing ‘digital tech’ rather than ‘ICT’, to resonate more with women.

Claire hopes that her role as a Data Skills Gateway Advisory Board member will help her become an ambassador for promoting these opportunities in data. She is passionate about technology because she understands the difference it can make and is keen to have a national impact. This includes making sure that data education is available across educational opportunities, and aligning the SDS apprenticeship programme with the DDI’s work.

As for her future career aspirations Claire said, “My mark of success would be if everyone would understand the potential of digital skills, and could talk about it confidently. Everyone having a really good understanding of how the digital economy can make a huge impact on Scotland. We’re in a tough place in terms of our economy in general but harnessing digital skills could really help. If I could share that knowledge amongst everybody, if I could make everyone passionate about technology, if I could stop people being scared by it, I think that would be fantastic.”


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