From education to employment

It’s time for digital apprenticeships to smarten up

In the aftermath of results day fever, thousands of youngsters across the country will be considering the apprenticeship route into work. Traditionally, apprenticeships have been viewed by many as a poor relation when compared to going to university, often associated with lower skilled and paid jobs. However, with the introduction of university fees and the average student finishing university with £50k worth of debt this view is beginning to change and many are considering them as a serious alternative to university – something which is desperately needed to combat unemployment.

Specifically, in the digital and technology industry – which currently employs 1.56m people across the UK and accounts for £161bn turnover per year – apprenticeships are becoming much more commonplace. Indeed, almost 20,000 digital or tech apprenticeships were started in the UK last year, according to the Tech Partnership. The fast-moving pace of this sector means that apprenticeships are a credible alternative to a traditional degree, as graduates often come out of three years at university equipped with outmoded technical skills.  

There have been huge problems with apprenticeships, partly due to the ‘gold rush mentality’ that the government created when they first started pushing them. The way funding was structured created opportunities for training providers to make huge profits out of apprenticeships, which became their main driver rather than providing genuine career opportunities for young people.

This was particularly true in digital and technology, where a lack of industry knowledge and inability to keep pace with in the sector businesses led to substandard provision. A number of high-profile schemes, particularly here in the North, have failed recently and left hundreds of youngsters out of work. Some might argue that, currently, digital apprenticeships are not having a positive impact on the industry. Either way, something needs to change. But how?

One of the core elements for success in the digital tech sector is collaboration. More input from employers on what they actually want and need from apprentices is key, and whilst numerous schemes have taught students the wrong skills to enter the workforce, it is also the responsibility of employers in the region to demand and enforce quality standards.

The apprenticeship levy, whilst causing some controversy, should go some way towards fixing this, particularly as the Government will cover 90% of the cost of an apprenticeship for businesses with an annual wage bill below £3million. This is particularly important in the digital tech industry, where a large percentage of businesses are SMEs/micro businesses and struggle to find the funds and resource to really invest in schemes.

The Government’s ambition to create more apprenticeships is a welcome step, but the quality side of apprenticeships still needs addressing. The Post-16 skills plan should go some way to address this issue, with the plan relying significantly on the input of employers in terms of providing placements and apprenticeships. However, as it’s in its infancy we cannot rely on this alone. As digital apprenticeships tend to be hugely technical, the right people need to be leading them, which is why more input from digital and tech businesses is crucial. How things work in the industry vary hugely from company to company – what the required coding language is in one business, might be totally different to another, but the principles that need to be taught are the same and business led teaching is key. While it might seem like a huge responsibility and time sap, it’s what is needed for success in this sector – and probably in many others, too. New models of apprenticeship delivery with business at their heart are now emerging, and many universities are looking at how they can deliver fully funded degree apprenticeships – which has been well received by the industry.

Another concern which must be tackled is the lack of buy in around apprenticeships in general from parents and youngsters alike. In order for parents to start seeing apprenticeships as viable opportunities for their children, and for their children to start considering them more seriously, there needs to be a seismic change. This should start in schools, with more funding for careers advice and better informed advisors, who push more than solely the university route. Apprenticeships can no longer be positioned as a way to earn very basic skills –  students need to know that now they’re as likely to be able to take an apprenticeship in law or software development, as they are in business administration or customer service.

Businesses might also want to consider inflating salaries for apprentices and providing clearer progression routes, so that this path becomes more appealing. The fact that apprentices can be paid as little as £3.30, and some providers use this as a main selling point, is not helping with their image.

Ultimately, getting the apprenticeship route right has never been more important – particularly in the digital industry where we’re faced with the ever-present threat of the skills shortage in technical roles. In an industry that’s growing so quickly, we need more skilled professionals that can manage the sheer amount of work coming in. And this simply can’t happen without proper investment in apprenticeships. The industry now needs to work together to make schemes more transparent and beneficial to both industry and learners alike.  

Katie Gallagher, managing director at digital trade association for the North West, Manchester Digital

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