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University vs Apprenticeship: The education debate

Traditionally, a degree is the preferred route into the technology industry, but many now believe an apprenticeship may be a more valuable path into the sector

Dissent appears to have been growing lately over whether getting a university education really is the best way to find a dream job in tech – or anywhere else, for that matter. For example, a study by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development revealed at the end of last year that a mere 52% of former students had found a graduate-level post within six months of leaving university.

A key problem in the tech sector in this regard, says Alan Furley, director of specialist tech and engineering recruitment consultancy ISL, is that universities tend to teach “hard skills that aren’t always contemporary or adaptable into a career, while at the same time the cost of a degree plus lost earning opportunities is ever growing”.

According to a study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, for instance, nearly a third of recent graduates are currently earning less than £20,000 per year, despite having incurred an average debt burden of £50,000 – a sum that many are likely to spend much of their life paying off.

But apprenticeships, which successive governments have been pushing as an important alternative for some time, have faced their own issues too. First, they still appear to come with a stigma attached – if they register in potential candidates’ consciousness at all.

Second, there have been issues around quality in some quarters. Despite the high levels of noise around alternative routes into employment, which include apprenticeships as well as internships and returnships, employers have had mixed experiences, says Furley.

“Some of the companies I know and talk to have had success on this route, but it does seem that the quality isn’t assured, so there is a trial and error aspect to the process that people are still wary of,” he says.

But the situation has also not been helped by ongoing controversy over the government’s apprenticeship levy. Introduced in April 2017, the levy requires employers with an annual payroll of at least £3m to pay 0.5% of the total into a digital account. The money can then be reclaimed in the form of vouchers within two years to spend on apprenticeship training.

Inflexible approach

The downside is that not only is the entire system perceived to be inflexible, but the levy has also been widely criticised as simply another means of taxing business. As a result, chancellor Philip Hammond has now announced plans to work with employers to review the charge and try to make the system more adaptable.

The upshot of this situation though is that the number of apprenticeships being offered by employers is starting to fall. An official government report published in September showed the number of new apprenticeships on offer in the 2017/18 academic year had crashed 28% between August 2017 and June 2018 to 341,700 (from 472,500).

But despite this debacle, some employers, particularly in the tech sector, have made it plain that they value experience at least as highly as qualifications these days. In fact, many are taking a decidedly mixed approach to recruitment to bridge the burgeoning skills gap.

One employer that has taken just this tack is Netsuite solutions partner, FHL Cloud Solutions, which was acquired by RSM UK in November last year. Out of its current staff of 74, 20% are experienced hires and 20% recent graduates.

Undergraduate placement scheme

A further 46% came through the company’s undergraduate placement scheme, 11% are or were apprentices and the rest joined with no experience “but looked as if they had potential”, according to operational director Darren Birt.

“We take a blended approach because one route doesn’t necessarily fit all,” he says. “We’re quite specialist and can’t always get people off the shelf, so we have to train them from the ground up.”

Martin Linstrom, managing director for the UK and Ireland at IPSoft, which sells artificial intelligence (AI)-based virtual assistant Amelia, agrees that this blended approach tends to be the most effective.

“There are so many more options for learning available these days,” he says. “About 10 or 15 years ago, it was either universities or apprenticeships, but now there’s online training, training colleges that offer six or 12 month courses … the options are vast and broad on how to obtain new skills.”

But while Linstrom acknowledges the vast majority of new hires on an industry-wide basis are still graduates, he believes there are pros and cons to this source of talent.

Pros and cons

For example, while universities are good at providing students with a “defined base skillset”, the problem is that what they learn in their first year “may be redundant by the time they leave as the technology moves on”, he says. On the other hand: “University teaches people the art of learning, which is useful as what they need to learn will change.”

But this requirement for a “defined skillset” when dealing with complex technology such as AI, and the immaturity of tech apprenticeships, which have only been around (at level three and four) for the last five years or so, mean that the company has so far not opted to set up an apprenticeship scheme of its own – although Linstrom says he does appreciate the value of on-the-job experience.

Another organisation that has chosen not to take the apprenticeship path is payment processor, SmartDebit. As a small company of 50 people, the IT department simply does not have the resources to do so, indicates chief information officer Gavin Scruby, although the successful hire of an apprentice by its finance department means that it may be an option in future.

“We currently can’t spare the level of support required to train people as we need them to hit the ground running – and that includes graduates,” says Scruby. “Even with degree apprenticeships, you still lose them for a large amount of time, which makes resource planning difficult – it’s much harder for a small company.”

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Another important point, he says, is that many small businesses are generally unsure of how to get involved with apprenticeship schemes, as information tends to be targeted at large organisations with HR departments that are plugged into the appropriate networks.

“It’s a lack of awareness more than anything,” says Scruby. “The government simply has to get the message through via the channels that are used by small companies, which is just not happening at the moment.”

Nonetheless, FHL’s Birt believes that, over the next two to three years, the previously mentioned degree apprenticeships (level six), which were first introduced last September to a rather lukewarm reception, will ultimately be the way forward for the tech industry.

“The degree apprenticeship is a game-changer,” he says. “Before it came on the scene, you either went for a degree or an apprenticeship. But this is a mix of the two and so you get the best of both worlds, which will attract a lot more people to it.”

Squaring the circle

The key advantage of this approach is that it offers “a different route to the same qualification, which is a circle that people have been trying to square for a long time”, says Birt.

This means that not only do degree apprenticeships provide a feasible way into the tech industry for people who have “written off going to university because it’s too expensive”, but it also provides former apprentices and others with a means of upgrading their existing qualifications.

Another key benefit relates to staff retention. “It’s about loyalty. If someone has come through on an apprenticeship, they’re far less likely to move on once they’ve completed the programme, which is why you don’t see many former tech apprentices on the job market,” says Birt.

“It’s a very sticky method of recruitment” and one that enables employers to mould young and enthusiastic workers to their own requirements – and this is no less true of degree apprenticeships than any other,” he says.

“If you sign someone up to a four-year degree-level apprenticeship, they’re unlikely to change either employer or provider if they’re part-way through the course. So they get a more stable learning environment while being paid, and we get the reassurance they’ll stay.”

Losing the stigma

Moreover, he says, the very fact that apprenticeships are now available at degree level means the stigma associated with them should rapidly start to disappear.

“When people came in with degrees, it may have given them a bit of a headstart in the past, but after two or three years in the workplace doing the same job, there’s no real difference,” he says. “It may have taken apprentices a bit longer to get there, but otherwise, they weren’t held back – and that is being refined even more now with the arrival of degree apprenticeships.”

As a result, Birt is expecting to see more and more candidates go down this path, not least because universities are pushing it heavily too.

“Today, the industry is oriented towards those taking the academic degree route, but over the next two or three years, it will shift increasingly to a more vocational approach,” he says. “So we’re going to start seeing more and more people joining the workforce by opting for a degree apprenticeship as their first choice.”

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