Crossing the watershed – digital skills crises will soon be history

There is no shortage of talent, only of employers who train that talent. Thirty years ago it took around 18 months turn a University Graduate into a competent analyst programmer. During that second year about 30% left for more money. Hence the reluctance to train and sporadic skills “crises“. Today it takes under 18 weeks. On some programmes the trainees are revenue earning inside 18 days. Over the past year the Apprenticeship Levy has also concentrated the minds of those who previously looked to compete for supposedly staff with skills that are in global, not just intra-UK, shortage.

In consequence we have crossed a watershed.

Two years ago SANS ran a boot camp to give Cybersecurity Challenge the main US security qualifications winners in a little over 10 weeks. Almost all received job offers within days of completing the course. Last year a major UK recruitment agency ran a talent trawl to produce 150 consultants capable of being billed as UK “eyes only” security consultants inside six. Their recruitment consultants identified nearly 4,500 with the requisite aptitudes and attitudes but barely 1,500 capable of getting a UK “eyes only” clearance.  All would all have been billable (i.e. the necessary skills) within three months but it took rather longer for most of the clearances to come through. The shared “incubator” (trainees from a variety of programmes) at the heart of the Plymouth Cybersecurity Skills pilot has a blended learning programme (mixed supervised hands-on practical with on-line and off-line theory) within which participants are producing billable work within ten days although it takes a similar elapsed time before most are capable of unsupervised work.

Not only are similar programmes are now gathering pace across the areas of headline skills shortage but those running them are looking to turn them into the first stage of graduate level, degree linked apprenticeships. This helps with retention at the same time as turning the competent, revenue earning technicians they produce into potential “professionals”. It also enables employers to reclaim the levy.

The band-wagon is gathering pace and those who do not want to be crushed under the wheels of change need to jump on board. I aim to blog in more detail on what is happening over the next couple of weeks but those wanting an early authoritative picture should try to attend the launch of the Apprenticeships Anthology – Reflections on the Apprenticeships Levy on Year On,  on Friday April 6th. The Chief Executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships Sir Gerry Berragan will outline what his staff have been doing over the past year and set out their priorities for the coming months ahead. He will then join a panel of employers and apprentices to discuss the inaugural edition of what is intended as an annual Anthology, published by Queen Mary University of London in partnership with The Good Schools Guide. The first issue pulls together reflections from the past year and aspirations for the future from Anne Milton (Minister of State), Anthony Jenkins (Chair of the IfA), Sue Husband (Director of the National Apprenticeship Service), Jules Pipe (Deputy Mayor of London), CBI, HEFCE, OFSTED, UCAS, UVAC, various businesses, training providers, apprentices and many more.

For those unable to attend at such short notice it may be helpful to give a quick heads up on how to blend a cost effective, rapid pay back, training programme with reclaiming the apprenticeship levy: rapidly producing a supply of competent technicians in areas of skills crisis and a cadre of potential “professionals” and high fliers. (My thanks to the members of the Digital Policy Alliance 21CN Skills group for what follows – any errors from over-simplification are mine – not theirs)

An apprenticeship programme has to last a minimum of 12 months. The mandatory payscales are low, barely sufficient to cover travel to work, but most employers offer significantly more as soon as the apprentices have shown their mettle and motivation. Many offer stepped pay rises as the apprentices become revenue earning. This is great for both motivation and retention, as well as being “only fair”. Most post-University entrants expect to be offered a graduate trainee payscale and linkage to a Masters degree (level 6/7 in apprenticeship terms).

Degree-level/linked Apprenticeships take longer because students/employees have to incorporate academic learning equivalent to their peers at university. This can take up to 20% of their time and businesses can incorporate this into their timetable in any way that suits them. Some send employees off for three or four weeks consecutively at a low, quiet period. Others run a one day a week day release. Some Universities have sophisticated distance learning operations including globally networked tutorials and supervisions. It depends on the businesses’ activity/needs and the University partner(s). All apprentice employees will be required to do a certain amount of study in their spare time and sit end point assessments in order to qualify.

It is also quite possible to use the levy to pay for similar internal schemes to upskill the current workforce. The pay scale is open to negotiation. Many stay on the same salary until they qualify when they then receive appropriate compensation. John Lewis is running this model and has taken the opportunity to offer loyal, current staff the opportunity to upskill. Other companies, such as IBM and Microsoft, are using the 10% allowed for external training to train staff in companies who use their software. The latter include SMEs who would not be able to provide an apprenticeship training programme without the support of both larger corporations and local FE colleges or Universities. Meanwhile the CMI has created a degree level apprenticeship management programme through which the Cabinet office and others are putting about 800 existing staff. This currently accounts for about 70% of the Degree Apprenticeship schemes running. The Civil Service now offers  Fast Track apprenticeships and HMRC’s programme to rebuild its in-house skills includes a range of Digital Apprenticeships

I hear the squawks from those who say you cannot produce a rounded “professional” in 18 months. I did say “potential professional”. But must add that those who have repeated the same mistakes over a decade or more, because they were never properly trained, are not “professionals”. The IT industry’s poor track record for delivery is in no part due to the large number of  those with fancy letters after their names who never received rigorous training akin to that I received in my first 18 months with STC Microwave and Line before I was let loose after producing a system that both met the supposed user needs and survived destruction testing by the rest of the department. When I was reviewing definitions for the BCS Professional Development Scheme I used to routinely replace “x years of experience” by a list of the roles and skills in which the individual must have demonstrated competence. I expect the transition from academic degrees and professional “time serving” to structured pre- and post- graduate apprenticeships and mandatory, quality controlled professional development programmes and renewable “certificates to practice” (more on that in another blog) to lead to a sharp improvement in “real” professionalism (whatever than means).

But that is only one of the changes we can expect in the course of the year ahead as employers, professional bodies, trade associations, colleges, universities and schools work with local authorities to form partnerships (local, national and international) to knit together Government initiatives (DCMS, DCLG, DfE and BEIS as well as the new Apprentice Levy and Grant processes) and education and training technologies that have finally come of age – to transform the UK skills market and grab international competitive advantage for the participants.

We may have crossed the watershed but more climbers die coming down the mountain than climbing it. Meanwhile more firms go out of business during the recovery from recession than on way down. The road ahead will be rocky and I plan to cover some of the opportunities and strategies for those who want to not only survive but to exploit the opportunities and come out on top in a Post-Brexit world where we must make full use of our native talent as well as becoming a global hub for the skills of the future

P.S. If you click on the link for the launch of the Apprenticeships Anthology you will note that QMUL claims to be the first Russell Group University to adopt Degree Apprenticeships, working with “some of the world’s largest and most dynamic enterprises such as Goldman Sachs, IBM, GSK and the BBC.” Cambridge was, of course, in that space long before the Russell group was formed. Frank Whittle (inventor of the turbojet engine) never matriculated as an undergraduate, he was already a married RAF Officer with a reputation for dangerous stunt flying. Instead he bypassed the University regulations and graduated with a First in Mechanical Sciences after doing the Tripos in two years instead of three.

The East London College, now part of QMUL, did, however, open the first department of aeronautical engineering, in 1907, My grandfather matriculated from the Chatham Dockyard apprentice school in September 1914. After war service, he graduated from the first Electrical Engineering Degree Course of the East London College. Most of his job offers were to work on aviation electronics but he was married and risk averse. He went into the Patent Office as the only examiner competent to adjudicate the applications of his peers. Hence my inherited prejudices regarding the relationship between innovation and Intellectual Property Rights.

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