A-level results dipped for the first time in two decades this year, with fewer students achieving the top grades and the number choosing to take ICT exams continuing to plummet.
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The results from the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed a near 10% decrease in students sitting the ICT exam for 2012.
With university fees on the rise, many students are starting to assess which other options are available to them if they want to continue into higher education.
As a result, more companies are starting to offer apprenticeship schemes, which still allow candidates to study for a degree or other vocational qualifications, while gaining work experience.
For example, Capgemini offers a higher apprentice sponsored degree programme, which enables students with A-levels to gain on-the-job work experience while studying for a degree sponsored by the company.
Capgemini’s Higher Apprentice Programme enables the student to study for a BSc in Computing and IT, but the candidate has to make a five-year commitment to the scheme. At the end of the programme the apprentice becomes a member of Capgemni’s team and will be offered a graduate salary.
When Matt Benaron, an apprentice on the scheme, took his A-levels, he didn’t get the grades he wanted. He admitted to previously having the mentality that university after A-level was the only route for students to progress.
“The word 'apprenticeship' didn’t really appeal to me at first, but once I started looking into the other routes available, other than university, I realised that becoming an apprentice had many benefits,” he said.
“There is a lack of awareness about what the modern apprenticeship looks like.”
Rebecca Plant, higher apprentice programme manager at Capgemini, said the apprenticeship scheme allows the candidate to come into contact with clients: “They are not just shadowing someone, but are out and about on real projects. They are away from home a lot of the time, staying in hotels, so we offer the education part of the scheme through Open University.”
Plant said the scheme is growing in popularity, possibly spurred on by the rising cost in going to university. Last year 300-400 students applied for the apprenticeship, whereas over 1,000 have already applied for the 2012 intake.
In 2011, the first year in which Capgemini ran the scheme, the company took on 34 apprentices. For 2012 it plans to take on 89 and is also planning 89 for 2013.
“Applicants come to an assessment centre where we narrow down which candidates to take. They need to show a real aptitude and passion for IT,” said Plant.
In addition, applicants are required to have at least five GCSEs at grade C or above, including maths and English, and to have or expect 3 A-levels at grades C or above, or equivalent including an IT-related subject such as maths or science.
The apprenticeship also gives the candidate the chance to develop skills in programming languages such as C# .Net; Drupal/PHP; Microsoft and Java, and to work with cloud computing and software as a service tools.
Considering A-level students and not just graduates
John Antunes, director of SME and channels at SAP UK, said it is particularly worrying that long-term joblessness for young people is still rising, and encouraged small businesses to take stock on the A-level talent pool instead of just considering university graduates.
“Rather than feeling reluctant to take the risk of employing individuals who need training and investment to reach their potential, think about the benefits of shaping willing, young employees and how your business can be perceived as an attractive alternative to university or careers in larger enterprises,” he said.
Antunes highlighted Youth Contract, a government scheme set to offer nearly 500,000 opportunities over the next three years for young people through work experience, apprenticeships and wage subsidies to help them find work.
“With these government plans in place to invest in apprenticeships and other development schemes in the private sector, small businesses shouldn’t be afraid of expanding their workforce and developing the talent which clearly exists in the UK,” said Antunes.
Recent research from the CBI found that more than a third of employers plan to expand their recruitment of school leavers and apprentices with A-levels.
Neil Bentley, CBI deputy director-general, said: “With more employers looking to hire at 18 - often through innovative ‘learn-while-you-earn’ schemes – the government should listen to business views to ensure exam reforms help better prepare young people for work and life.”
Stuart Silberg, vice president of technology at online bookings firm Hotels.com, said it canbe a challenge to find candidates that not only look good on paper but can combine their talent with great communication skills and real-life problem solving ability.
“There’s no doubt there is a high demand for talent in the industry and more young people are now growing up with a clear interest in technology and a solid skills set. It’s crucial that schools, the government and the wider technology industry continue to nurture the next generation of workers and highlight the benefits that a career in technology can bring, so that promising young talent doesn’t get lost,” he said.
Eben Upton, inventor of the low-cost educational computer Raspberry Pi, spoke out about the lack of students opting for careers in technology during a recent discussion at Google UK’s London offices.
He warned: "This skills shortage is going to shaft our economy. There was no recognition of that until a very few weeks ago. It will shaft every attempt that we have to solve these big problems if we do not have enough engineers in Britain to tackle them.”