IT services group EDS last week justified its decision to take on school-leaver trainees when 51 young people completed their three-year apprenticeships and were presented with National Vocational Qualifications, writes John Kavanagh.
The success of the company's break with its tradition of only taking graduates into trainee jobs is reflected in the fact that it has increased its intake of raw recruits aged between 16 and 20 by 150 since that first group in 1997 - it is aiming to recruit another 130 this year alone. EDS has 13,700 UK staff and takes on between 300 and 500 new graduates a year.
EDS' initial intake of 51 apprentices was one of the first and certainly the biggest group in the UK to get into IT via the Modern Apprenticeship scheme set up by the government in the mid-1990s. Other companies running similar schemes include Norwich Union, Bull and, recently, IBM.
Employers and individuals commit themselves for three years, with the aim of achieving the level three National Vocational Qualification. Employers receive about £2,500 per person, but the apprentices are treated and paid as permanent staff. They typically get training on the job and through day release to local colleges.
"We have a huge spectrum of work and we saw that we didn't need graduates for all of it," says EDS director Alan Stevens, who introduced the scheme at the company and presented the certificates to the first group at a special event last week.
"We've been very, very pleased with the initiative. The people are assigned to account teams to do real work from day one. They do testing, operations, Web site design - and we now have hard-bitten project leaders asking for them to be assigned to their teams."
This is not just because the apprentices are cheaper than other staff, Stevens insists, "Team leaders look for an overall balance of skills and personalities and they recognise the value the young people bring."
The new recruits need a minimum set of GCSEs and the right aptitude and attitude to work in IT. These are tested with written exams and interviews.
Each recruit gets a mentor, typically a young colleague, and a formal assessor.
"There is a bit of an issue initially among staff about having to look after them," Stevens says. "Some of the issues are different to those involved with mentoring graduates - many apprentices are minors, so project teams have to be careful about taking them to the pub, for example."
Stevens says there has been no shortage of applicants, but he is concerned that only 29 of the 201(14%) taken on so far have been female.
"We're trying to get a gender balance but girls just aren't applying," he says. "IT still has an image problem among young women."
Now that the group have finished the apprenticeships EDS "absolutely wants them to stay for long-term careers". Stevens says they could get to the level of the 1997 graduate intake in six to 12 months.