What future for young people seeking a career in IT?

Computer Weekly talks to two digital natives who are leaving the Department for Work and Pensions' IT apprenticeship scheme as the government swings the axe

As George Osborne presses ahead with drastic attempts to reduce the structural deficit, the public sector is already haemorrhaging IT talent as the hiring freeze continues and apprenticeships face an uncertain future.

Real evidence of this can be found at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), where about a dozen apprentices employed across the IT organisation will not have the chance to take on permanent roles regardless of their capability.

Mark Keaney and Jake Elwell had been unemployed for several months following brief spells doing jobs such as warehouse picking and waiting tables. Eventually, they were recruited to join DWP's corporate IT apprenticeship programme last year.

The opportunity was something akin to hitting the jackpot for Keaney and Elwell, who are in their early twenties and studied IT at college. Both were very eager to work in the industry despite the scarcity of entry-level roles for inexperienced staff.

"I always wanted a career in technology, but without having gone to the university it is a lot harder to get the foot on the door, so the DWP it is one of the best places to get an opportunity as it is one of the biggest IT departments in the UK - there was nowhere better to start," Keaney told Computer Weekly.

During their year at the department both apprentices got involved in a wide range of activities that included IT support, infrastructure-related projects and running the innovation community "Idea Street", as well as visual design and co-ordination of video production for large-scale events for the technology department.

Both trainees feel the experience at the DWP has significantly boosted their capabilities - not just around technical expertise, but also stakeholder management skills and better understanding of the inner workings of a corporate IT environment - and so they are more employable as a result.

Bleak prospects

Despite their confidence, Keaney and Elwell are due to leave the Department on 29 November and real job prospects are looking thin. According to a series of Comprehensive Area Assessments, Warrington is one of the English regions faring the worst in terms of jobs, with the Audit Commission expressing "significant concerns" about its pockets of high unemployment.

In addition, a report released last week by PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that, following the cuts announced in the spending review, an estimated 233,000 public sector jobs are under threat in the north - equivalent to 3.8% of the region's workforce.

The DWP apprentices have been looking for jobs for months, with little success. Keaney's only remote hope is having his CV passed on to a possible employer by an agency, while Elwell was turned down for an IT helpdesk analyst job at the beleaguered Arts Council England because it was looking for someone with more experience.

"There are not a lot of IT jobs about. The few helpdesk jobs I have applied for all require someone who has been doing these things for quite some time and has qualifications, not someone who has only done of a few months of apprenticeship," said Elwell.

"So no matter how good our [current] managers say we are, we still can't compete with these people who have been in the industry for 10 or 20 years and are also looking for work," he added.

As a consequence, both trainees are now applying for administrative or customer service vacancies, despite the fact that even those kinds of positions have been hard to come by.

Keaney is looking to learn web development skills by himself, as a way to boost his existing expertise in graphic design, and hopes to eventually find an IT job. "I just need to keep the money coming in, but if I got in an admin job and the security, I would carry on improving my skills and studying as it improves my chances of getting a job [in IT]," Keaney said.

"Depending on the opportunity I get next, I would like to get back into education to improve my chances. You see a lot of job vacancies and think 'I could do this', then you see it is for graduates only," he said.

"I realise having a degree opens doors, so if I could get an opportunity that would enable me to go to university, I would definitely do that."

The apprentices are disappointed that the DWP is not able to keep them, but realise that the situation in government has changed radically in the past 12 months.

"There was always a possibility that you might be able to get a job before the election, but it is all different now. It feels quite strange, because sometimes you think you could get a job and then suddenly you realise you just can't. It is quite surreal," said Elwell.

"When we were brought in, we could apply for external jobs, which was OK, but then came the recruitment freeze. Now there are no jobs to apply for," he said.

Digital natives at work

Despite all the difficulties ahead, Keaney and Elwell say they have a much better idea of the direction they would like to take their careers, as well as improved confidence and skills.

"I have done several roles across the IT organisation, so that gives me a much better sense of direction for the future. I have improved so much, from IT literacy to simple things like answering the phones," said Elwell.

Keaney agrees with his colleague and is certain he has what it takes to hit the job market.

"Some of the people we worked with were very senior and we managed to work with them and develop the ability to express our ideas and opinions comfortably, whereas before we felt a bit nervous," he said.

Both trainees agree that things could have been done differently across some areas in the department, but do not feel they had their creativity stifled in any way.

"Some of the processes are strange and I think that things could be simple, but it doesn't always work that way due to restrictions. If it was private sector maybe things could be a lot simpler, but just because it is public sector, it has to run that way," said Keaney.

"IT at home is not standardised and here it is. But that is probably a good thing, because people have the same kit and it is easier to maintain and everyone has the same level of equipment," he added.

"The big difference is that you can do whatever you want with your computer at home and at the DWP there are a lot more restrictions - for good reasons of course - but that took a bit of getting used to."

Elwell shares Keaney's view around the way activities are carried out at the department, but points out that they don't know any other model.

"It has been a challenge to do things at first, but it is all new to me anyway and we don't have a lot of other organisations to compare it with," said Elwell.

The DWP blocks access to social media tools such as Facebook and YouTube, but the trainees do not feel that affects their ability to do their jobs.

"If I want to talk to my friends I would do it at home over the web or phone, but I wouldn't speak to them at work anyway, as it would be a distraction," said Keaney.

"I would use [such tools] if it was allowed, but I don't think it would help my job or any of the roles that I had," he said.

After working at the largest department use of IT in Whitehall, Elwell and Keaney have clearly made up their minds about pursuing an IT career, but do their friends see IT as an attractive prospect?

"I do think that there will always be interest from people who studied IT at college and have an interest in computers to go for a career in the sector," said Elwell.

Keaney says his peers are not interested in IT, but he knows many people of his age who are. He is determined that technology is where his professional future lies, regardless of the challenges he may need to face from next month.

"My strategy is changing as I go along, but before I didn't even have one. At least now I have a basic plan and to be able to plan further I need to see where I will be going after this apprenticeship finishes."

A spokesperson for the DWP said that "no decisions have been made" about the future of the IT apprenticeship scheme.

"A number of the IT apprentices have already found other roles because of the experience they have gained from the scheme," the spokesperson added.


The manager view

DWP chief technology officer James Gardner has worked directly with Mark Keaney and Jake Elwell during their apprenticeship and said they have been "hugely valuable" to the department, adding that if the circumstances in public sector were different, it would be "impossible" not to keep them.

The IT chief acknowledged that additional placements for apprentices were announced in the spending review and added that could mean the need to foster talent is finally being recognised. But he noted that organisations need to rely less on traditional paper-based methods to find talent.

"It's impossible to ignore that a great percentage of the talent pool you can tap into does not come to you though conventional means, which is go to university, then go through a CV bake-off - most organisations today still use those methods to find people," said Gardner.

"There are opportunities for amazing things elsewhere, but there is also a huge number of applications for these positions," he said, making the point that he "never understood" the skills shortage debate, and believes that talent can come from anywhere - talented people just need to be given a chance.

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