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Graduation of apprentices is coming of age for Accenture’s Newcastle hub

The first group of IT graduates emerging from Accenture’s apprenticeship scheme in north-east England will walk straight into jobs, debt-free

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The first group of IT graduates from Accenture’s Newcastle-based apprentice programme will all walk into jobs at the IT services giant free of student debt, after graduating in April 2016.

Thirteen apprentices became the first to pass out of the scheme, which combines several years of on-the-job experience with a salary and education. This resulted in the award of a Higher Apprenticeship for IT, software, web and telecoms professionals, incorporating a foundation degree and Level 4 BTEC diploma.

Surely the greatest pull of the scheme is the absence of crippling debt following years of study. 

Back in 2013, local youngsters joined the company’s scheme, at Accenture’s Cobalt Business Park near Newcastle, north-east England. All 13 graduates will soon start full-time work at the firm’s Newcastle-based centre, the UK link in its global delivery network.

The programme’s success has meant that it has already been expanded and the next 19-strong group of apprentices, set to graduate in July 2016, are already on their way.

The expansion is not a surprise, with apprenticeships experiencing something of a revival in the UK. The IT sector is part of a new industrial revolution, driven by digital technology, with trends such as the internet of things (IoT) breathing new life into similar schemes. 

Earn while you learn

Computer Weekly spoke to three of the graduates to get the inside story.

Ben Manning was 17 years old when he joined the programme. “I was in sixth form doing my A-Levels and I wanted to go to university to study computer science. I heard about the Accenture scheme, which was pretty similar to the path I wanted to follow,” he said, adding that it was easier partly because the degree is paid for by Accenture.

He has worked on customer relationship management (CRM) software, mobile technologies and at HM Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) operation in Newcastle.

He’ll stay at Accenture after graduation and hopes to continue developing at HSBC, the company’s customer, and could also be offered a top-up year to attain his full degree. He’s happy to stay at the HMRC, he said, where he is part of a small team delivering software changes.

Ashley Walker

Ashley Walker, 28, who studied IT during a further education course, joined the scheme from a business degree, after realising the latter wasn’t for him. “I heard about the Accenture programme from a friend of a friend,” he said.

On the apprentice scheme he started in a maintenance role at the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), another Accenture customer, working on the RPA’s IT system, known as Rita, and got to grips with things such as batch schedulers and Unix.

He is currently working on Salesforce.com technology and, like Manning, hopes to top up to a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree. 

He said the course has surprised him through the opportunities it has provided, even beyond the learning experience. “One week I was sat doing my normal stuff at the RPA, and the next week I was collecting an award on behalf of Accenture, meeting Nick Clegg and staying in a nice hotel.” He has also spent time working in Madrid.

While Manning’s computer science interest and Walker’s IT course at college seem to be appropriate launch pads to the apprentice scheme, IT experience is not actually a requirement. 

Scott Gillan

For example, Scott Gillan embarked on his A-Levels but wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after that. “I heard about an apprenticeship and thought this was the best choice because the company pays for your degree, so you earn while you learn and get experience as well.”

He said he might be £40,000 in debt if he had completed a degree. “All my mates went down the university route and they are going to be stuck with this kind of debt,” he said, adding employees want possible recruits to have experiences of life.

Gillan works in HMRC software testing, and is happy to remain there gaining experience in public sector IT. He said he would like to progress to a team leader or manager role and see where he can go from there. 

Career opportunities in Newcastle and beyond

And there could be great opportunities even if the graduates remain in Newcastle, where Accenture is developing operations the business considers important for it both nationally and globally.

The north-east England operation is a vital cog in Accenture’s global delivery engine. In fact, Accenture’s Cobalt Park office is the only UK facility where the company’s name adorns a building, according to UK managing director Oliver Benzecry.

The centre, Accenture’s main UK delivery operation, is part of the company’s global delivery network, which encompasses more than 140,000 people globally, the majority of whom are in India and the Philippines.

Emma McGuigan, who runs Accenture’s UK and Ireland Technology business, said the Newcastle operation was originally seen as a way of getting a different mix of people and skills. These complement other regions, she said. For instance, agile development might start in Newcastle and then be scaled in Mumbai.

She said the centre was first used to support government customers that did not want data going overseas, but added that this approach was now changing.

Read more about IT skills and apprenticeships

Five years ago the centre was supporting about 10 clients, mainly in the public sector. “We now have 60 clients supported from Newcastle, which is a significant percentage of the business, and they are all accessing it in different ways,” said McGuigan.

For instance, UK customers might not have the volume to justify a large offshore shared services contract, for operations such as Salesforce, and the Newcastle operation can provide a small local alternative.

Scaling down services is important as changes in technology, such as the increased use of the cloud, lead to a fall in the average deal size of IT services contracts, something which McGuigan said would be perfect for a delivery centre such as Newcastle.

Getting the right people is vital

It’s the rapidity of technology change that gives the north-east England operation another advantage. Mark Larsen, who heads up the Newcastle operation, said the centre is flexible and the people within it are able to shift between technologies. “It’s now about getting people with the right curiosity, aptitude and skills. They have to switch between technologies very quickly.”

Getting the right people is clearly critical, and with 500 people applying for 20 places there’s a lot of choice.

Despite the success, Accenture knows there is still work to do, not least attracting the right kind of people, something which is not always obvious. 

Larsen said the advertising used for the scheme needs to be adapted to attract the  right people, as well as more women. There were no women in the first group of graduates, and there’s only one among July’s graduates.

“It is harder to attract girls but it is improving and there are more interested,” said the operations manager for the Newcastle delivery centre.

Read more on IT technical skills

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