Providing work experience to close the skills gap - give IT to those who want IT

Many IT employers still complain of a lack of suitable recruits on the job market. What role could work experience play in closing the IT skills gap?

The Office of National Statistics released the latest unemployment figures last week, which revealed that youth unemployment rose by 16,000 to reach 1.04 million. Government plans to provide unpaid work experience have proved controversial, but young people now account for a third of those unemployed, so something needs to be done.

Despite many roles being overwhelmed with applications, many employers still complain of a lack of the right skills, and few industries more so than IT. Amid the current controversy, it’s interesting to ask what role work experience could and should play in helping both parties.

Organisations like the Trades Union Congress claim that "cut-price, poorly-targeted and unpaid" work experience schemes were not helping enough young people find jobs and recent efforts by a number of household-name companies have been heavily criticised in the media. But does work experience deserve all the bad press it’s been receiving – and how prevalent are well run schemes? With much of the media focused on the activities of large retailers, little is heard about the involvement of the IT sector, of which there are many success stories.

Leading providers of IT training like Zenos and Just IT, for example, have very rewarding apprenticeship programmes in place for 16-to-18 year olds, which incorporate work experience. Many obtain full-time employment in the IT industry and earn more than others in their age group.

Just IT apprentice Kieran Bay, 18, is doing his apprenticeship at Fabric Technologies, a London-based business technology consultancy. Kieran didn’t have IT-related qualifications when he applied - his A-levels were in product design, photography and economics - but he was interested in computers. He joined Just IT’s programmes and has recently completed CompTIA A+ certification and is working towards Windows 7. He is Just IT’s 2012 Apprentice of the Year and hopes to move onto a permanent position at the end of his apprenticeship.

Partnering with these organisations is a great opportunity to identify and recruit trained and certified staff. It does not suit everyone, but the theory can be applied to any company. You don’t need to work only with established training programmes, you can learn from them and develop your own to suit you – teaching and certifying in the specific skills your company needs. Employers should start taking on talented people who may not have the right technical experience, but who show enthusiasm and competence.

It's the employer’s responsibility to assess and arrange the work opportunity that they are most suitably able to manage. The types of work experience vary, as usefully described by the National Council for Work Experience (NCWE), including structured internships, sandwich placements as part of a student's course, shadowing a member of staff working in an organisation or short-term voluntary work. The NCWE gives more details here.

Instead of taking people on at full pay, employers can offer a basic pay packet alongside the job training aimed at gaining industry certifications, such as CompTIA A+ and Microsoft MCITP – or whatever technologies they work with. A full-time job can be offered at the end if the employee fits the company, or made conditional upon reaching a certain standard, such as passing certifications.

Overall, the aim of work experience is to provide skills and understanding that further increase an individual’s ability, preparedness and interest in undertaking a particular role. The important thing is that goals are set and the candidate is given the support to gain the skills they need.

When properly managed, it is a simple and effective way to try out candidates and develop the skills your company needs, rather than relying on the candidates to already have them. This counts particularly for emerging technologies such as the cloud or app development. But unfortunately, it is common for poorly organised and poorly managed work experience to be a financial drain, with either nothing to do or overloaded with the workload of a full-time employee.

In most cases, if you take the time to pick a motivated candidate and run a good work experience programme, you will end up with your perfect employee.  Even if the candidate is not retained, a well-run programme should deliver value to the company and leave the student with great life skills.

IT employers should be getting involved with these programmes and they are the kind of projects the government should be throwing its weight behind – not just unpaid work in low-skilled jobs. But even without government support, such programmes are easy and cost effective to run, and IT employers would then have no excuse for bemoaning the lack of skilled candidates.

John McGlinchey is vice president of CompTIA for Europe & Middle East.

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