How apprenticeships are helping bridge the digital skills gap

Apprenticeships are not only for young people – they can help make IT departments more diverse and inclusive, as well as plugging skills gaps, as DWP Digital has proved

National Apprenticeship Week starts on Monday 7 February 2022. This year’s theme is “build the future”, reflecting on how apprenticeships can help individuals to develop the skills and knowledge required for a rewarding career, and businesses to develop a talented workforce that is equipped with future-ready skills.

It’s an ongoing problem that demand for tech talent and skills is greatly outstripping supply. This has only increased amid the pandemic recovery. So it is important that businesses look to options such as apprenticeships to build a talented home-grown workforce and upskill employees at all levels.

While some organisations are in the early stages of exploring apprenticeships as part of their learning and development strategy, DWP Digital has been offering apprenticeships since it was established just over five years ago across a number of digital specialisms to develop early career prospects from a wider talent pool.

They have proved to be a valuable solution to our recruitment challenges and have enabled us to fill roles in software engineering, infrastructure engineering, data engineering, DevOps, business analysis and end-user computing.

Apprenticeships improve diversity

What comes to most people’s mind when they hear the word “apprentice” is a young school leaver heading into their first role, but in fact the average age of an apprentice in DWP Digital is about 35.

Apprentices are a hugely diverse group – something that is extremely important to us as we continue the transformation of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP’s) services. Almost everyone in the UK relies on the DWP at some point in their life, so we need our workforce to represent the people we serve. Our apprentices allow us to increase that diversity of thinking and help deliver services with the users’ needs firmly at their heart.

We are hoping to use National Apprenticeship Week to get the message out to people who think it’s “too late” for them to get into tech that there are options available.

Apprenticeships are suitable for any number of professions, ages, locations and skills. Whatever stage of his or her career a person is at, an apprenticeship can be a great opportunity to develop skills and professional capability. Whether an individual has experience from education, work or even none at all, employers look for an apprentice with the right passion and transferable skills that can be brought into that sector.

Transferable skills are one of the most important things to consider for people thinking about an apprenticeship, especially for those who are looking for a career change or women returning to the workplace. No matter someone’s work experience, they will have gained skills in their personal life that can be taken into any role, for example communications experience and teamwork.

Apprenticeships increase capability

One really successful example of how we have used apprenticeships in DWP Digital to bridge a skills gap is in DevOps engineering.

DevOps engineers are in high demand and have proved a very difficult skillset for us to recruit, so in early 2021 we launched our first-ever DevOps engineer apprenticeship. This led to more appointments into DevOps roles than in an entire year of traditional recruitment activities, resulting in us quickly running a second campaign in November.

The first 18 weeks of the apprenticeship involve an immersive bootcamp experience to develop fundamental skills in software engineering and DevOps, as well as an understanding of modern deployment architectures and building a deployment pipeline using AWS.

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After this, the apprentices join their teams to begin their DevOps roles, applying and consolidating their learning into practice. They then develop their portfolio of learning and evidence over a further 14 months before completing an end-of-programme assessment to achieve their Level 4 DevOps engineer qualification.

The apprenticeship has provided us with a fantastic opportunity to recruit new talent into the organisation who we can develop and invest in to become highly skilled DevOps engineers. It has also meant we have significantly improved the diversity of the DevOps community.

We have now recruited almost 50 DevOps apprentices from a huge range of backgrounds, from recent college leavers and graduates to career changers, including existing civil servants in operational roles, delivery drivers, car plant technicians, housing officers, charity workers, musicians, business analysts, and primary and secondary school teachers.

Apprenticeships for growth and retention

As well as providing new skills to people entering the workplace, apprenticeships can also be used to upskill the existing workforce.

DWP Digital is committed to growing and retaining our existing talent and we do our utmost to retain the specialists we already have. We encourage all our employees to continue learning and developing in their roles and are committed to building a thriving and supportive culture for our employees.

This is why we see it as important that apprenticeships are available to existing employees as a development opportunity. By investing in their development, colleagues feel valued, are happier at work and are more likely to remain with the organisation.

Apprentices earn while they learn

The introduction of the apprenticeship levy means that employers are now in the driving seat to really benefit from what apprenticeships have to offer. And for the apprentice, it means they are offered at least the national minimum apprenticeship wage.

In DWP Digital, our apprentices are given permanent contracts with normal civil service rates of pay, and they also get to enjoy all the employment benefits of a civil service career, including pension, annual leave, public holidays, and the chance to forge a career in a sought-after tech profession.

Combined with the fact that apprenticeships take half the time of a university degree, it’s what makes them part of the solution to helping bridge the increasing digital skills gap, and definitely something that all organisations should be considering.

To get started, visit the National Apprenticeship Week website to find out more about the events that are happening over the course of the week to demonstrate the impact that an apprenticeship can have on your organisation.

You can visit our careers site to view DWP Digital’s latest apprenticeship opportunities and subscribe for updates.

Richard McHugh is head of digital capability at DWP Digital.

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