E skills for the future?

Jane Dudman explains how young people in Newham have the chance to be apprentices in a scheme to lessen the blow of the IT skills...

Jane Dudman explains how young people in Newham have the chance to be apprentices in a scheme to lessen the blow of the IT skills shortage

Gary Blundell is 16. He has his GCSE results. But he also has something better - a job designing Web pages which he loves. And day-release training in graphic design at a local college.

Blundell is lucky. He is an apprentice: a form of training for post-16, non-academic young people that used to be a pathway into secure employment. Such schemes were ravaged by declines in the UK's manufacturing and engineering industry. "I was surprised when I got this job," admits Blundell. "I wasn't keen on school. I've been interested in computers since I was 10 years old."

Blundell now earns just over £7,000, working as a trainee Web designer for marketing agency YoYo in Leamington Spa. "The money is fine," says Blundell. "They are teaching me design basics and the work they do is fascinating."

The Government wants to there to be more apprentices like Blundell, helping to plug the skills gap and providing employment and training opportunities. It is now five years since the previous government launched its Modern Apprenticeship scheme. Thousands of young people have received jobs and training. But there have been problems. The independent Training Standards Council recently told the Government that employers were deterred from taking on apprentices because they cannot rely on funding.

The idea of taking on raw recruits to plug shortages has had mixed reactions from IT directors. Earlier this year, Computer Weekly found that 83% of IT managers would welcome trainees into departments under the Modern Apprenticeship scheme. Those who had already taken on trainees found them motivated, enthusiastic and flexible. But some managers warned that they would only take people with basic IT skills.

Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham Council, has pioneered a joint venture with Bull to provide IT training for unemployed young people in the borough under the Government's New Deal Scheme. He believes managers who apply the same inflexible approach to young trainees as to taking on fully-qualified staff are missing the point. "Someone who is late to an interview and inappropriately dressed would disqualify them in many companies," he points out. "But you have to look deeper. If you overcome those difficulties, we find they are capable, enthusiastic young people, who become ambassadors for the organisation. Potential employers say there is not the staff-base available, but we believe they are not looking thoroughly."

There are other social implications when taking on youngeremployees. Project teams at EDS took on 51 young people in 1997 under the scheme. They have had to be careful not to take minors to the pub, often an informal part of graduate training.

Insurance giant Norwich Union is another corporate to have taken on apprentices. Not all companies are prepared to take on people as young as 16 though. HP is trialling a scheme, but the minimum age is 18. "We wanted to find a balance between people coming onto the scheme, but who would be useful to us in two or three years' time. We felt if they were only 16 years old when they came on the course that might not be the case," comments HP UK education consultant Babita Ash, the project manager.

The first 22 entrants started on the two-year scheme in November. The course is a mix of on-the-job training and block-release study at Bracknell and Wokingham Colleges. To qualify, entrants need five GCSEs at grade C or above. These are the exam results to enable a young person to get onto most A-level courses. So why join HP, rather than go on to do A levels?"As well as gaining academic qualifications, people will learn to do a job in the real world," comments Ash. "Also, they will be getting a salary. We hope this will be an attractive entry point into HP."

The trainees earn £12,000 during their two-year training and will then be offered a permanent job at HP. A starting salary of £18,000 will probably follow in areas like engineering, where the job market is competitive.

Newham's New Deal

In October 1999, Newham Council set up a joint venture with Bull Information Systems to try an innovative way to improve IT services to overcome the IT skills shortage and enhance employment prospects.

The two organisations have created a jointly-owned firm called New Deal IT Services. It provides services to Newham and trains local young people in IT skills. "We were suffering from a skills shortage, so we looked to develop the local workforce and lower IT support costs," explains Richard Steel, head of IT at Newham.

Under the scheme, 15 people in their early 20s were taken on. They are paid the minimum wage of about £7,000 a year and receive training towards qualifying as Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers. They also work in support for Newham and other employers.

Newham has benefited from lower costs and improved IT services, says Steel. It is also directly helping to improve the supply of more rounded support staff. "Traditional IT support is compartmentalised. We are trying to take trainees through everything so they have more rounded, hybrid skills."

There is considerable competition for places, says Rachel Guymer, training manager at New Deal IT Services. "Many entrants have the necessary qualifications. What they find difficult is experience to get started because it is difficult to find employment here," she comments.

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