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Q&A: Apprenticeships change game for tech talent pipelines

Taking on apprentices can be an effective way of creating and developing fresh talent pipelines for tech businesses. It can also be a viable solution to plug the digital skills gap many are currently facing.

Research from the Tech Partnership shows that UK businesses currently need 134,000 new tech specialists each year so it is crucial every avenue is explored to source their expertise.

In this Q&A, Margaret Sambell, Director of Strategy at the Tech Partnership, discusses the value of running tech apprenticeship schemes and Beth Wooster, Office Manager at technology consultant Nestar, details how the business has benefited from an influx of digital skills by offering Tech Industry Gold accredited apprenticeships, designed by employers for employers to help them grow their talent in a cost-effective way.

Margaret Sambell:

There’s been much talk surrounding the shortage of tech skills in UK businesses, do you think this is true?

Tech Partnership research, and analysis of published statistics, makes it absolutely clear that there are skills gaps at all levels. For example, over a million new recruits are needed into the digital specialist workforce by 2023. 42 per cent of employers recruiting digital specialists are already struggling to fill their vacancies, with digital specialist job vacancies amounting to around £2 billion of lost GVA to the UK.

44 per cent of IT executives report current digital skills gaps are impacting productivity. 50 per cent of companies across the economy with digital specialists report skills gaps (72 per cent of large firms and 49 per cent of SMEs). A fifth of the digital specialist workforce are, on average, only 52 per cent proficient in their jobs: if this is increased by just 20 per cent as a result of appropriate training, a GVA uplift of £5.5bn would be delivered.

Digital skills gaps are particularly problematic in new technology areas, for example, 95 per cent of companies implementing cyber security systems are struggling with skills gaps, and four out of five companies trying to recruit into big data roles are struggling to find the talent they need.

Why is it so important for tech companies to consider hiring apprentices?

High-quality apprenticeships offer real business benefits. Well-constructed, well-managed apprenticeship schemes give organisations of all sizes the opportunity to grow their own talent, to develop employees who have the exact skills the company requires, and who are imbued with the company’s ethos and values. The Tech Partnership’s Tech Industry Gold accredited apprenticeship schemes are an excellent example of this. The programmes themselves have been designed by employers to combine world class training with on the job learning, and the training providers that deliver them have been through a rigorous approval process and offer dedicated support to employers. The outcome is apprentices who are productive sooner.

The financial upside is significant. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, level 2 and 3 apprentices deliver £27 of economic benefit for every pound invested. Companies may find the cost of hiring an apprentice is less than they thought; depending on the level of apprenticeship, all or part of the training element will be paid by the government, leaving the employer to cover just the salary element.

Beyond this, of course, apprentices bring enthusiasm, new perspectives, and often a whole range of existing skills, like familiarity with social media. It can be very gratifying to give people an opportunity to grow and flourish, and it’s a visible demonstration of your commitment to your local community.

How much support do employers receive for training tech apprentices? Do you feel that a hands-on approach from training providers will encourage more tech companies to hire apprentices?

A good training provider will give a high level of support to businesses signing up for apprentices. This starts with helping with the recruitment process; the training provider will have its finger on the local education and employment pulse and will liaise with schools and colleges to attract good quality, well-motivated applicants. Training providers will pre-screen applicants so employers get a shortlist of good quality candidates, and will work with the employer to ensure that the classroom element of the apprenticeship fits with the workplace side. All the way through the apprenticeship, the training provider will monitor the apprentice’s progress, and provide feedback and support to ensure successful completion.

Taking on an apprentice for the first time can be daunting, particularly for smaller businesses, so this kind of hands-on support is very valuable, for both the apprentice and the employer. There are a great many small businesses in the tech world and for them, the intensive support of an accredited programme could make the difference between employing an apprentice and struggling on without one.

Do you think the tech sector will evolve to become more gender inclusive? Do you think apprenticeships are a step towards encouraging more young women into the tech sector?

Employers in the tech sector are very keen to employ more women and improve the gender balance – in fact, the Tech Partnership is just launching its My Tech Future campaign with a specific aim of getting more girls and young women to consider a tech career. Change on this scale takes time, but there are signs of a genuine shift.

Apprenticeships have a strong role to play here – the fact that they recruit on digital aptitude rather than prior attainment means that women without specific tech qualifications won’t be excluded. Women are often motivated by the chance to do interesting and worthwhile things with their technical knowledge, so the chance to apply their new skills immediately in the workplace can prove particularly attractive. And the high level of support and regular feedback and mentoring make apprenticeships an excellent way into the workplace for anyone who needs to develop their confidence.

Beth Wooster:

How have tech apprentices benefitted your business?

Tech apprentices have benefited Netstar by providing us with highly motivated employees, keen to learn and develop their skills. As they are usually ‘millennials’ and ‘digital natives’, apprentices come with a high level of comfort around technology and an ability to pick up new technologies easily.

Apprentices have little or no previous experience in a helpdesk environment. Therefore, it is easier to align them with our ways of working and our core values, leading to ideal employees who often stay with us at the end of their apprenticeship.

What kind of roles do the apprentices have within the company? Why would you suggest other tech employers take on apprentices?

Apprentices within our company staff our reactive service desk, familiarising themselves with many different technologies and picking up a variety of skills. Apprentices will learn customer service skills such as the ideal phone and email manner, the importance of ‘owning a problem’, and also when to ask for help.

Other tech employers should take on apprentices due to the fantastic return on investment they provide. They also allow the promotion of other employees into supervisory positions to develop their skills further.