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It is good for firms to run apprenticeships, but they should share their experience with other firms. This is the view of Joyce Roberts, head of area relationships at the Skills funding Agency, an organisation supported by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) to fund apprenticeships.
Roberts spoke at an event organised by tech skills college Ada: National College of Digital Skills in an attempt to get more employers to commit to running apprenticeship schemes in partnership with the school.
“Do get involved with this exciting project, but tell someone else,” she urged. “Apprenticeships benefit employers, the apprentices and the economy.”
Finding the right skilled people
As part of the government’s apprenticeship levy, the UK aims to have three million more apprentices starting in England by 2020, said Roberts.
From April 2017, UK employers that operate a PAYE bill of over £3m annually, of which there are around 22,000, will be expected to pay 0.5% of the PAYE bill into the levy. Once the levy is paid, employers with apprentices can claim money to train and grow their apprenticeship programmes.
By collaborating with causes such as Ada: National College of Digital Skills, Roberts said employers can act as the main advocates for using apprenticeships to gain skills that are lacking in their companies.
“It’s quite a long timeline for things to happen, but it’s going to come very quickly,” she said.
Debbie Jackson, assistant director, regeneration, at the Greater London Authority, claimed initiatives such as Ada College, whereby those who join the college are trained through a curriculum which is partially formed by partner firms, are a great way of ensuring young people develop the skills needed to fill empty IT positions.
Elisabeth Cuthbertson, BIS
Jackson pointed out that by offering a different career route, education-supported apprenticeships would help tackle the digital skills gap and could also contribute to the regeneration of areas such as Tottenham Hale, where Ada College is based.
At an event in early 2016, Ada College and partner Investment 2020 showcased a number of people from the financial investments industry to explain to recruitment officers the benefits of technology apprenticeships, including an early foot in the door of a career, a mixture of soft and specialist skills, and the ability for firms to mould apprentices to fill the firm’s individual skills shortages.
Speaking to potential employers willing to offer apprenticeships, Elisabeth Cuthbertson, deputy director for BIS, reiterated the message that the UK needs to leverage apprentices to fill skills gaps and drive UK tech innovation.
“Digital tech touches every aspect of our lives. We need people with specialist skills to create and understand technology across the economy,” said Cuthbertson. “We want to enable the UK to compete at the cutting edge of technical innovation.”
Many people believe firms should collaborate with schools and colleges to shape the curriculum so that students leave school with the technology skills that are needed in the workplace.
Jackson stated this would see a move towards a “high-quality apprentice delivery” and “ensure when pupils leave the college they are trained so well they hit the ground running in the place of work”.
But there is a misconception that these collaborative efforts only support educational bodies.
Mark Smith, CEO and co-founder at Ada College, pointed out that the mutual support helps firms to give apprentices the right kind of experience.
“We really believe this is a variable and aspirational route to come through,” he said. “We recognise that this is a significant change to how larger firms have been encouraged to take on employees in the past.”
The soft skills challenge
In recent years, there has also been an emphasis on soft skills in technology roles, and employers are increasingly looking for people who have a combination of technical skills and softer skills.
Paul Milner, senior early professionals manager at IBM, said a lack of suitable people for technology roles had led to firms seeking different types of candidates.
“Because of the skills gap in tech, we’ve had to train people with non-tech degrees,” he said.
Harrison Crossley, apprentice
As technology is beginning to become a part of many non-technical roles in firms, more people are finding they have unintentionally fallen into a role in technology, even if they had no previous IT skills.
When Harrison Crossley, information security apprentice at Schroders, applied for his apprenticeship, he told his now boss that he did not know what information security was. But due to the amount of training that takes place as part of an apprenticeship, his lack of skills did not matter.
“He still hired me,” said Crossley. “Learning soft skills and working for people has helped me vastly. I feel like I’ve learnt more in the time I’ve worked there than I would have in three years at university.”
But a lack of skills is not equivalent to a lack of interest. Lucinda Clements, consulting BrightStarts director at Deloitte, said finding apprentices is about ensuring they are passionate and will fit with the firm in the future.
“For us, it’s a different way of recruiting people much earlier on in their lives. When we recruit people, they need to demonstrate they have a real interest in technology – they don't necessarily have to have any formal skills,” she said.
By hiring and developing apprentices, Clements claimed firms could embed apprentices into their culture and way of working, as well as teaching them skills they will value throughout their careers.