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Apprenticeships have to change to be successful, says expert panel

Apprenticeships are becoming a popular alternative to university, but they have a long way to go, Harvey Nash Future Skills Programme event hears

A lot needs to be done to ensure apprenticeships are fit for purpose in delivering the technology talent for future jobs, according to an expert panel.

Speaking at a Harvey Nash Future Skills Programme event focused on taking advantage of the government’s recently introduced apprenticeship levy, a group of experts said initiatives to encourage skills development are too disparate, and do not take into account what young people want from work and education.

Jack Parsons, CEO of collective Big Youth Group, said apprenticeships need to be “torn up” and built to match what young people want if they are to stand any chance of becoming a viable alternative to university.

“We are baking a Victoria sponge cake, and the young people want organic ingredients,” he said.

The apprenticeship levy, introduced by the government in 2017, requires firms with a payroll worth more than £3m to contribute to the levy, a portion of which can then be reclaimed by some firms in the form of e-vouchers, which can be used to fund apprentice training.

But Parsons said apprenticeships should be built around the wants and needs of the young people taking part, especially as they are the ones who are more likely to know what they want from the experience. Young people are increasingly concerned about whether projects they take part in will make a difference to society, he said.

“If you give them options when they go into that organisation they’re going to respect that, and they’re going to enjoy it more.”

Businesses need to take these changes into consideration “before we even start talking about the levy”, said Parsons, adding that firms, education providers, government and industry bodies should start working as a collective to properly develop initiatives that will create talented people with the skills that industries need.

“In business you have so many risks; it’s a risk to bring in an internship,” he said. “We need to bridge as a community together. We can make our strategies together, we can talk about everything.”

Parsons said there should also be mentoring and peer mentoring in firms, suggesting that apprentices can do as much to help a firm as the firm can do to help them.

But there is no denying that there are still a number of barriers to young people looking to take part in apprenticeships, ranging from a lack of soft skills to socio-economic barriers to entry.

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Parsons said those who had encountered fewer barriers should count themselves “lucky”, but Ade Awokoya, founder of LBAcademy, said diversity is not always a top priority for businesses, and that people have to be “patient”.

“We have to look at things from the organisation’s perspective,” he added.

Not only is it up to organisations to develop skillsets, but individuals too, said Parsons. He claimed that “different companies have different pipelines”, so it can take varying amounts of time for different groups of people to be trained and ready to take up particular roles.

Labelling himself “old school”, Awokoya said that when navigating his own career, he often hit “barriers” in his skillset, which he found coaches to help him overcome, and pointed out that “mindsets” towards skills and diversity “work both ways”.

Much like developing an inclusive workplace, it takes a change in the overall culture of an organisation to fully adopt new ways of working, he said.

June Angelides,  founder of Mums in Technology and chair of the Future Skills Programme, agreed with Awokoya, suggesting changes in organisations’ culture need to come “from the top” to trickle down, and that leaders must have the “mindset to allow that process to occur”.

Angelides said a “multi-pronged approach” is needed to establish a system whereby firms attract and retain diverse talent, as well as keep skills in the organisation relevant and up to date.

Companies that do not do what they can to cater to the new generation of talent and their needs will be left behind, said Rioch Edwards-Brown, founder of So You Wanna Be In TV? and So You Wanna Be In Tech?.

Pointing out the disruption taking place in every industry because of technology change, Edwards-Brown said that some products and industries, such as silent movies, “died out overnight”, and many industries will be in similar trouble if they do not adapt quickly.

Edwards-Brown said Generation Z – those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s – will soon account for 40% of global spend, and will take it upon themselves to develop the workplaces and industries they want if they can’t see them already represented.

M&S develops talent within the organisation

While many firms are looking outside their organisation for talent, retailer Marks and Spencer has taken a different approach, launching a data skills programme with the help of Decoded.

Data is becoming increasingly important, especially in retail, as brands try to get ahead of the competition by using customer data to develop technology and optimise customer experience.

Sharon Peters, head of technology corporate systems at M&S, said: “We are on a journey and I think we’re going to learn a lot. The higher up you get, it is harder to be vulnerable and admit you need to keep on learning.”

Although she admitted some people in the organisation are a “bit scared”, Peters said the transformation M&S is going through is a “great thing and it’s going to be an enabler to help us develop”, especially in the retail industry, where many legacy organisations are struggling with digital.

Part of this new outlook is “learning from the generation below us to be inquisitive and ask questions”, said Peters, who pointed out that it can often be difficult for those at the top to admit their aversion to digital and reveal their vulnerability.

Listening to communities and what they want is one of the ways forward to prevent some of the “Kodaks” of the future – companies that have fallen by the wayside after failing to change, she said.

“There is a lot of honesty out there and that’s a good place to start,” she said. “We start from a place of honesty, and we’ve just said you need to rip up everything you’ve got and start again.”

Edwards-Brown said the current apprenticeship levy “isn’t fit for purpose for the future” and companies need to think about “future-proofing” their industry.

She suggested matching entrepreneurs within companies with apprentices for mentorship as one way to “start again” and develop career paths that will fit both the current and future needs of industries.

Doniya Soni, principal policy officer for the Greater London Authority, said businesses are “keen” to leverage the apprentice levy and are looking for creative ways to use it to address their digital talent needs, but many firms are concerned that restrictions on what the levy can be used for will prevent them from investing the funding in the way that will be most beneficial.

There are many initiatives aimed at increasing the number of digital and science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills across the UK, said Soni, who herself was appointed to look into the development of digital and Stem skills in London, but she admitted that things are currently “disjointed and disconnected”.

Emphasising the importance of moving forward with skills development across the UK, Soni said: “Businesses are very keen to get involved in any way they can. Digital skills are a really big issue for tech companies – but not just tech companies. We are seeing the digitisation of everything.”

The government has been working to develop a wider pool of skilled workers in the UK, such as outlining new rules for skilled working visas, developing a new Institute of Coding to tackle the skills disconnect, and announcing new qualifications aimed at developing technical career paths.

But many believe collaboration between all interested parties is the only way to ensure young people are developing the skills needed for the workplace of the future.

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