Tackling the IT skills gap: University degree or apprenticeship?

While the GCE A-Level results show that more people than ever will be going to university, the IT industry is failing to attract enough new talent

While the latest GCE A-Level results suggest that more people than ever will go on to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) courses at university, the IT industry is failing to attract enough new talent.

This year's results showed that 13,650 people sat A-Level computing and ICT, 8,301 of whom attained grades A* to C. In addition, almost 84,000 students achieved grades A* to C in maths or further maths.

But a recent survey from BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, highlighted the skills gap that threatens to affect the future of the UK economy unless people with the right skills enter the IT workforce.

An ageing workforce means there is a "demographic time bomb in IT", according to Adam Thilthorte, director of professionalism at BCS. 

"We need knowledge transfer for our legacy systems," he said.

IT apprenticeships

There is also growing interest in alternatives to university education, both from an employer and student perspective. 

In March 2014, to tie in with National Apprenticeship week, companies including BT, ITV and Virgin Media announced apprenticeship schemes, creating a total of 20,000 openings for apprentices.

Mark Ridley, director of IT at online recruiter Reed.co.uk, said an increasing number of employers are realising the value in developing young talent, without the expectation of a degree-level education. 

Companies really need to look hard at their entry criteria in respect of mandatory degrees to ensure the individuals who don't go to university don't slip through the talent net

Vanessa Vallely, WeAreTheCity

"This is vital to the health of British industry and the wider economy," he added.

Charlotte Holloway, head of policy at techUK, pointed out that apprenticeships are a key ingredient of the talent pool. 

"It's great that the recently announced £29.5m Tech Partnership will directly support 2,750 apprenticeships. This represents a big win for employers and school leavers alike," she said.

IT degree or no IT degree?

A computer science degree is not necessarily a pre-requisite for a career in IT. 

When asked about qualifications required for IT consultancy work, Kate Newton, Accenture’s head of recruitment in the UK and Ireland, said a willingness to learn and an aptitude for consulting were key.

"While we need specific technical skills for some of our experienced hire roles, we are equally looking for people with enthusiasm, a passion for technology and strong team skills," she added.

An understanding of statistics is important for data analytics, one of the hottest areas in IT at the moment, but it is not the only route into this field, according to Kevin Long, business development director at Teradata.  

"The people who do best in data analytics roles tend to have a diverse education, with interests in politics and history," he said. "It’s about having an enquiring mind, a natural tendency to question and to want to know more about things."

Future skills development

The challenge for IT leaders looking to recruit new talent is that organisations tend to have a bias towards traditional education.

CompTIA's European vice-president, Graham Hunter, said the UK needs to stop viewing the apprenticeship route as the poorer cousin of the higher education degree.

"That’s certainly not the case in Germany, where vocational programmes are seen as on a par with university degrees. That would be the measure of success in the UK if we were able to get that same level of standing for apprenticeship schemes," he said.

This is already happening. Cisco, which previously ran only a traditional graduate recruitment programme, is one example.

"Three years ago, we started an apprenticeship programme to look at bringing people who had completed their A-Levels into the business," said Ian Foddering, CTO and technical director at Cisco UK and Ireland.

The IT landscape is changing. The question for CIOs and school leavers alike is what IT skills will be required by the business in three or four years' time. 

"Companies really need to look hard at their entry criteria in respect of mandatory degrees to ensure the individuals who don't go to university, for whatever reason, don't slip through the talent net," said Vanessa Vallely, managing director of WeAreTheCity.

Nurturing talent through targeted in-house training offers businesses a way to develop the right IT skills to meet future business needs.

Career choices for school leavers

Apprenticeships offer UK IT departments a way to grow much-needed skills and develop a future IT workforce, while giving school leavers an alternative to university. 

Eloise Neal, an apprentice working as a social media administrator at recruitment firm WeAreTheCity, decided against university because she felt it would lead to too much debt and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it.

"I feared uni was for people who were purely academic. I felt it was wiser to do an apprenticeship where I could gain hands-on experience and study, plus earn a small wage so I could be little independent," she said.

For school leavers who don’t make their A-Level grades, IT can be a great career move. 

Hugh Fahy, CIO at Net-a-Porter, is among those who didn’t do too well at A-Levels. "Don’t feel disheartened. Work on something vocational, maybe with a year's placement, and if you’ve got the talent there’s definitely a job for you in tech. I did an IT degree and didn’t look back," he said.

And if university does not sound appealing, there is always the option of online training.  

Doug Ward, co-founder of Tech Britain & TechHub Manchester, suggested school leavers could go online to cs50.tv and do the same education as Microsoft's Bill Gates or Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg for free.

"This is what changed my life, having been in debt, on state benefits, with low self-esteem after having had a serious fail in a previous business," said Ward.

And how about creating a new IT company? 

"With a maturing startup ecosystem and an increasing number of accelerators, incubators and support schemes, young people thinking about setting up their own business can get access to a range of experience, advice and support," said Tech City UK's chief marketing officer, Katy Turner. 

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