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Are apprenticeships the solution to London’s digital skills problem?

With the technology skills shortage holding back London's burgeoning tech startup scene, can a commitment to apprenticeships help?

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London’s tech sector faces a significant shortage of talent. From the fintech pioneers of Level39 in Canary Wharf to the digital media startups of BBC Labs in Shepherd’s Bush, the story is the same.

London’s digital economy is growing very quickly, and ironically tech entrepreneurs consider the skills shortage to be the community’s single biggest barrier to growth. To help address this issue we need to look at an education model that teaches skills in a more hands-on environment and makes use of the tech community’s tradition of mentorship.

The data backs up the need for a new approach. An industry survey conducted by TechUK found that 93% of technology firms believe the skills gap has a directly negative impact on their business. This is reinforced by further industry data – O2 research showed that the UK must fill 766,000 new digital jobs by 2020, which will require almost 2.3 million additional digital workers. We do not have enough computer science graduates to fill this gap, and while massive open online courses (MOOCs) are helpful, we need more.

This extraordinarily high figure is not a bad thing as it shows an impressive growth trajectory. This demand indicates that we are closing in on the likes of California and Tel Aviv, but only if we can find technical professionals to fill the jobs we are creating. Filling these roles could mean looking at more traditional employment models to fill the jobs of the future, starting with apprenticeships.

A growing talent gap

Earlier this year Tech London Advocates, TechUK and Centre for London published the Mayoral Tech Manifesto, partly in response to calls from Advocates to address London’s growing talent gap. The manifesto advocates the building of a tech talent pipeline to rival that of New York – an initiative that has engaged companies from Facebook to Google, The New York Times and Goldman Sachs. Apprenticeships should play a central role in London’s pipeline too.

Read more about digital skills shortages

We should start by accepting that the traditional higher education model is not fit for purpose. We have made good strides in providing a base education through the addition of computing in secondary schools, but technical jobs in areas like hardware, machine learning and cyber security require immersion and hands-on experience. The government’s apprenticeship levy, due to commence in 2017, is a very good start and should be seen as an opportunity for tech companies rather than an expense.

London tech firms are currently training just 0.4 apprentices per 100 employees. This is something our own digital community must improve – and fast. Tools like GitHub have helped founders to improve their programming skills dramatically, and tech companies can help by providing hands-on assistance. Coding bootcamps such as Makers Academy have proven the value of group learning and working in pairs, so a well-run apprenticeship scheme can apply this practice to the specifics of a company’s culture and day-to-day work.

Russ Shaw, Tech London Advocates

"If we want London to retain its title as Europe’s leading tech hub, we need to invest in its future by creating opportunities for the tech talent of tomorrow"

Russ Shaw, Tech London Advocates

We face this skills crisis at a time when millions of jobs are at risk of automation. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report predicts that 65% of children entering primary school today will work in a job that doesn’t currently exist, so it is essential that we make our children digitally literate, giving them what they need to succeed in tomorrow’s world.

There are some great examples of how these can work. Tech Up Nation, launched by Optimity, provides a new-style technology apprenticeship focused on talent and skills rather than academic qualifications. The programme received funding from the Mayor’s Fund and incorporates a bootcamp, training programme, year-long programme and a qualification. The most admired entrepreneurs often did their best work outside the classroom, so this is a fantastic opportunity for those who are passionate about tech.

The Tech Partnership shows how government can contribute to an industry-led programme, and provides financial incentives to cash-strapped startups while ensuring apprentices learn valuable skills. Tech London Advocates was also proud to support the Tech London 500, which guaranteed 500 high-quality apprentices to London’s digital businesses with the support of City Hall.

These initiatives are doing fantastic work, and we need to create a culture where this is the industry standard in order to reverse the skills gap.

Digital taskforce

A digital apprenticeship taskforce could increase both the quality and quantity of apprenticeship schemes. This should include companies across the digital economy, higher and further education providers, and young people themselves. This group should take a hands-on approach to working with companies, tailoring apprenticeship schemes to focus strongly on employment outcomes.

By reserving a significant proportion of these apprenticeship schemes for women, we can also address the tech community’s gender diversity problem, and consolidate London’s position as the most diverse tech ecosystem in the world.

A functioning skills taskforce and apprenticeship programme will require commitment and cooperation from government, industry and advocacy groups alike. The National Apprenticeship Service plays a vital role, but all groups need to accept this is a shared problem that requires a collaborative solution. If we want London to retain its title as Europe’s leading tech hub, we need to invest in its future by creating opportunities for the tech talent of tomorrow.  

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates, a coalition of over 2,700 tech experts committed to championing London as a world-class digital hub.

This was last published in March 2016

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