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Channel explainer: How apprenticeships can ease the skills crisis

Is developing your own talent the answer to the growing skills gap? What are the benefits of working with young people? And what does success look like? This explainer tackles those questions

Given its position as the home of the trusted advisor, the channel is always under pressure to provide customers with the latest expertise and intelligence around emerging technologies. Users are struggling with security, trying to figure out how to use artificial intelligence and being swamped by rising volumes of data. Their solution is invariably to turn to a channel partner to help them take the burden.

That works well when the partner has the required skills, but the pressure to find talent, and train and retain that talent, is as acute for the channel as it is for vendors and enterprises. One solution is been to use apprenticeships and school leaver and graduate schemes to develop home-grown expertise. The benefits appear to be clear, but what is in it for the apprentice and what does best practice look like? This explainer should go some way to answering those questions.

How big an issue is the skills gap in the channel?

Non-profit organisation Tech Channel Ambassadors (TCA) recently outlined an initiative to get young staff across vendors, distributors, managed service providers (MSPs) and value-added resellers (VARs) to visit schools to promote the benefits of a channel career. To put its mission into context, the firm spoke of the current 100,000 vacancies for skilled staff across the channel and the importance of bringing in fresh blood to support an industry that contributes £50bn to the UK economy.

The idea of industry veteran Ian Kilpatrick, the TCA was formed in response to the frustration he experienced throughout his channel career in recruiting and retaining talented staff.

“We have had a shortage of talent for decades. There is a continual stress point, with companies paying money to hire and retrain talent, followed by churn and then repeating the cycle. This impacts remuneration at all points in the business chain, which negatively impacts growth and profits,” he says.

Rob Tomlin, managing director for the UK and Ireland at Exclusive Networks, says a skills gap in the security world is one of the major hurdles holding back further growth in the industry, and one it is addressing.

“There’s [a lack of] skills in the market to keep up the pace of growth in the cyber world. We have a skills shortage, which we do a good job of addressing, and we’re going to put a number of things in place over the next year around graduate apprentice programmes to help ourselves, but also help our partners, [because] the skills shortage is a real challenge,” he says.

How do apprenticeships work?

There are broadly two options for companies seeking to introduce apprenticeships: run a course yourself, or work with a specialist that will deliver the programme.

One advantage of working with a company that has a dedicated focus on training and staff development is they have learnt what fosters success, understand government guidelines, and know how to provide teaching, certifications and qualifications.

Westcon-Comstor is among those that have been running apprenticeship schemes to bring in and develop fresh talent. It runs its apprenticeship programme in partnership with a government-approved specialist, Global Knowledge Apprenticeships (GK), which it has worked with for more than six years.

The end goal of our programme is permanent employment for our apprentices
Claire Horton, Westcon-Comstor

“Over the course of 15 months, our candidates complete various pieces of coursework, giving them the theory behind what they do day-to-day, helping them build capabilities and immediately put them to use,” says Claire Horton, European HR director at Westcon-Comstor.

“The programme closes with a series of exams, which results in a certification equivalent to an A-level. Armed with their certification and broad experience, they have many new career opportunities to explore. The end goal of our programme is permanent employment for our apprentices,” she adds.

“Our management team is actively involved in every step of our apprentices’ journey, from taking part in activities on apprentice assessment days, to guiding them throughout their time at Westcon-Comstor,” says Horton.

The specifics often change, but apprenticeship courses generally last around 15 months, like Westcon-Comstor’s, and involve on-the-job experiences and classroom-based training, with a defined end objective that indicates the progress and achievement of each candidate.

“Entry requirements and course structures will vary depending on the level of the apprenticeship, but most will combine coursework with exams,” says Jonathan Fitchew, CEO of training and apprenticeship provider Apprentify Group.

What’s the benefit for the channel?

Being open to candidates from different backgrounds, outside the traditional degree, provides the channel with an opportunity to discover fresh talent and develop the future workforce.

Horton lists five main benefits for the channel: tailored talent development; increased productivity and efficiency; enhanced employee retention; innovation and adaptability; and a positive impact on corporate social responsibility.

Heather Delaney, managing director and founder of communications consultancy Gallium Ventures, has seen the benefits of opening the door to a variety of prospects.

“Having built companies in both Silicon Valley and London, I have found a degree isn’t necessary for a career in technology as the first – and most important – point is to have a genuine interest in the industry. When there is an authentic curiosity, desire to explore and openness to learn, one will naturally find a wealth of educational content and guidance,” she says.

“Much of this is free through online courses or on-the-job training, as well as through programmes such as internships or apprenticeships, which offer an amazing opportunity to bring often undiscovered talent into the industry, allowing a company to see if they are a good fit, but also allowing the individual to decide if it is the space for them,” she adds.

The positive feedback loop of bringing fresh talent and ideas into an organisation is also seen as a benefit by Aaron Skonnard, co-founder and CEO of Pluralsight.

“Apprenticeship programmes not only help businesses keep people motivated by offering an alternative route into the job market, but also ensure employers are equipped with the expertise needed to keep up with the pace of change and remain competitive,” he says.

What’s the benefit for the apprentice?

Horton also has a list of benefits for the apprentices themselves: hands-on learning; mentorship and guidance; earn while you learn; career advancement opportunities; and the chance to gain industry-relevant skills and qualifications.

Another major benefit is the chance of landing a permanent job at the end of the process.

“At Westcon-Comstor, we’ve placed talented candidates into our organisation and given them the best start to their career. Developing the next generation of talent and filling the skills gap remains a top priority for us now and in the future,” says Horton.

“Since the start of our apprenticeship programme in the UK, 76% of our apprentices have been permanently employed at Westcon-Comstor,” she adds.

“The benefits of apprenticeships both for individuals and organisations are varied and vast. By seizing the opportunities offered by apprenticeship programmes, individuals embark on a rewarding journey of learning, growth and achievement. For organisations, apprenticeships enhance the talent pool, drive innovation and strengthen their competitive advantage,” says Horton.

Apprentices have also found the experience to be a positive one. To support National Apprenticeship Week, which took place in February, managed IT player Evolve shared comments from two candidates who had gone through its scheme.

Laura Drury: “I started as an apprentice in 2021, aged 19, having never worked with IT before. I now have responsibility for a team of 21 people at just 22 years old, I understand my worth, and I’m so proud of myself.”

Harry Nicholson: “I think the best thing is knowing that I’m always learning new, useful skills, and that I can now demonstrate I’ve got skills and experience in IT, a sector that’s so prevalent.”

What advice would you give to someone thinking of running an apprenticeship scheme?

In his position as a training provider, Ash Gawthorp, chief academy officer at Ten10, has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of training schemes. His advice for running a successful scheme is twofold. First, businesses need to have an open mind about where the candidates are coming from.

“We analysed our data in terms of the people we’ve put through to see if we could see any signals or variables in their background that signals success. The two things that came down to, bizarrely, are, one, have they worked in a bar or restaurant, or in retail? Have they have they done something where the job isn’t the most motivating thing in the world, but requires them to show up, be consistent, and [understand] that they’ve got to start at the bottom, that they’ve got to learn the ropes before they can do it,” he says.

“The other one is competitive sport. It didn’t matter whether it was rowing, rugby, football, tiddlywinks, singing in the choir – whatever it is, they’re a team. They understand that team dynamic – they’re going up against other teams and only one of them can win on the day,” adds Gawthorp.

The second is that businesses need to commit to providing apprentices with the support needed to develop both technical and soft skills. A talented engineer is an asset, but one who cannot talk to customers might be a problem. With an increasing focus on customer experience, there is a need to develop people so they can talk to clients and colleagues with confidence.

“There’s so much focus on ‘we just need to give people skills’. If that’s all you focus on, it will not provide you with a good outcome,” says Gawthorp. “You don’t need people who can be amazing 1% of the time; you need people who are pretty good 100% of the time. Even more so in a small medium business where the people need to be on show as well.”

There are also some myths about the process of running apprenticeships and training courses that the channel needs to puncture if it wants to tackle the skills gap.

“There is a general misconception that training and professional development is unaffordable, especially for small and medium-sized organisations, and takes valuable resource away when resellers desperately need it. Apprenticeships offer a structured pathway for individuals to acquire the technical skills and knowledge needed to succeed,” says Apprentify’s Fitchew.

Apprenticeships are a very cost-effective way to build a skilled workforce that is bespoke to your businesses needs and requirements where you can offset the costs of training
Matt Dykes, Abzorb

“Through a combination of on-the-job training and classroom instruction, apprentices can develop expertise in areas such as IT support, cyber security, software development, network administration, and more. Apprenticeships also serve as a pathway for individuals from diverse backgrounds to enter the technology workforce. By offering opportunities to under-represented groups, such as women, minorities and individuals from low-income communities, the industry can promote diversity and inclusion,” he adds.

There are costs, regulations and time commitments that must be taken into consideration when embarking on an apprenticeship programme. But the way to approach it is to remember the size of the skills gap and view this as a long-term method of tackling it.

“Apprenticeships need to be viewed as a long-term investment. The benefit is that you can grow, nurture and cultivate people your way to have the skills that are bespoke to your business,” says Matt Dykes, chief operating officer at Abzorb.

“New apprentices are fresh talent who are loyal and often stay with the company. You have invested in them, and if you continue to develop them, in return you will receive a dedicated and skilled employee who is enthused, engaged, and will be more productive and proficient than employees who are not trained,” he adds. “Apprenticeships are a very cost-effective way to build a skilled workforce that is bespoke to your businesses needs and requirements, where you can offset the costs of training.”

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