From education to employment

The Ride of a Lifetime!

Jenny Taylor MBE CMgr MCMI, IBM UK Foundation Lead and IBM UK Early Professional Programmes How Can Employers Help to Improve Apprenticeship Completions?​

Ahead of National Apprenticeship Week 2023, Jenny Taylor MBE, Leader of IBM’s Early Development Programme, reflects on her personal journey as an Apprenticeship Champion with 20 years’ experience behind her as leader of IBM’s Early Professionals Programmes.

I was recently honoured to meet the Prince of Wales at my investiture ceremony to receive an MBE for Services to Education. The first question he asked me was ”how did you become an Apprenticeship Champion?” I was incredibly relieved because it was an easy one to answer!

With time to reflect now and with National Apprenticeship Week once again focusing my mind, it’s a great opportunity to articulate their value and to look back on my personal journey.

I’ve been leading IBM’s Early Professionals programmes for nearly 20 years. Initially, of course, early professionals meant graduate hires and undergraduate interns – and some high-flying gap year interns to complete the cohorts. Our programmes were very successful and award winning, so why change anything?

Well the world of work never stops changing so in 2010 we took on our first Level 3 apprentices

This was ground-breaking for IBM, we had previously never hired 18-year-old school leavers into permanent, client facing positions. We started small, in one division of our consulting organisation.  Interestingly, the incumbent Minister for Skills attended our launch. What a start!

I had little doubt it would be successful. Our early apprentices were passionate in their desire to achieve; they brought a new dynamic to the workplace and we were soon hiring more.  Apprenticeship Standards replaced Frameworks and the Apprenticeship Levy was introduced.   We were blown away by our apprentices’ passion, achievements and from a business perspective, the return on our investment. They were high achievers and we had provided their core training. On that basis, we took the plunge and became an Employer Provider.  I can’t say it was easy, our entire management team needed to familiarise themselves with new processes and take on roles within a new governance structure. However, our apprentices have continued to achieve stellar results, culminating in an Ofsted Outstanding rating in 2022. What a journey!

In tandem, I have also been Chair of the Digital and Technology Solutions degree apprenticeship. That journey started in 2014 when a number of tech sector employers and universities were invited to No 10 to discuss the creation of the first degree apprenticeship.  “We need it in a year” was the message given to us.  And we delivered in a year, including all the approvals required by both higher education institutions (HEI’s) to create a brand new university programme, and by the Department for Education. 

It was so new, that we didn’t have time to advertise the placements

So we asked our already recruited gap year interns if they would like to apply. They took the leap of faith and enrolled.  Four years later they all graduated with Honours degrees.  The crucial points are that they also had no debt, the benefit of four years’ salary, plus promotion within IBM in recognition of their increased skills. Effectively they were new graduates at that point, but in fact, they had overtaken the normal graduate intake on all of these measures.      

There have now been over 9000 D&TS degree apprentice enrolments; and the Trailblazer Employer and HEI group are incredibly proud that our updated standard has been agreed by the Institute of Apprenticeships and Further Education. This achievement was not without its challenges too. At one point, the degree element in the degree apprenticeship was in doubt, due to a clause in a DfE policy.  It sounds bizarre but this was a very real threat. As Chair, I coordinated our response, gaining support from professional bodies, employers, apprentices and HEIs, whilst also lobbying politicians.  Why did I go to so much effort?  Because I could see the results right in front of me: the degree apprenticeship was delivering fantastic results, in addition to encouraging a more diverse student profile and increasing social mobility.  

As an apprentice champion I speak at many external events

Very often I take an apprentice with me. Very often I wonder why I have turned up, because as soon as the apprentice speaks, I am superfluous. Without exception, the audience are blown away by their passion and life stories.  It doesn’t matter which apprentice I choose, the result is the same.

So, what is the key to success of apprenticeships? It’s very simple. On the job learning gives apprentices a super charged start to their career because they learn relevant skills from Day One. This practical learning is enhanced and underpinned by their academic training, and this is true at any level of apprenticeship: Level 2 to Level 7.

There is a real ladder of opportunity too. It’s possible to acquire #SkillsforLife by entering at Level 2 and working right up to Level 7. It’s also possible to sign on for an apprenticeship at any age and at any career stage. They are brilliant for upskilling as well as for school leavers.                

Needless to say, I didn’t give the Prince of Wales the full story, but I did tell him a little about my work with digital apprenticeships and the wonderful apprentices I know. I certainly never envisaged that the journey started in 2010 would lead to such an amazing day at Windsor Castle twelve years later.  Throughout, it’s always been the apprentices themselves who have continually inspired me to champion their cause.  

By Jenny Taylor MBE, Leader of IBM’s Early Development Programme

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