How apprenticeships are fuelling the future of UK tech

An apprenticeship at work handling electronic components
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As the UK economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, companies throughout the tech sector are banking on apprenticeships to address their talent gaps. With apprenticeship schemes now backed by a wide range of government incentives, the industry is increasingly battling the widening skills gap with on-the-job training. Apprenticeships also boost the employability of school and college leavers, university graduates, as well as the unemployed and those seeking a career change in later life.

Virgin Media O2 recently announced plans to recruit 100 more apprentices, and for one participant, the process was life-changing. When Karan Kaul completed his GCSEs and A-Levels early, he was unable to go to university immediately, so, instead, he joined the telecoms firm as a network engineering apprentice. “Though initially not my plan, my experience over the last few years has shown that going down the apprenticeship route really was the best choice for me,” Kaul, now a fully-fledged network engineer, tells IT Pro.

“Despite having no previous professional experience in tech, through a combination of on-the-job training and theoretical learning, I finished my scheme at Virgin Media with invaluable experience that’s enabling me to thrive. Not only has my scheme put me in an advantageous position for my future career, but through it, I was able to earn a great salary and gain several industry-known qualifications along the way.”

Apprenticeships aren't just for the young

Kaul's path could prove inspirational for many youngsters. Research by UK digital and tech skills organisation QA highlights how one in five 16 to 24-year-olds don’t think they could afford the training required for a career in tech. The research also uncovered several other misconceptions, such as 77% believing an aptitude for maths and science was essential. Four in ten, meanwhile, feel not having studied computing at school or college puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

While apprenticeships conventionally target school or college leavers, today's schemes are wider in scope than many might realise. For example, Amazon's announcement, in February, that it was creating 1,000 full-time apprenticeships in 2021 included 100 degree-level apprenticeships and more than 500 among its own employees who wanted to gain new skills. In June, the company also launched a £2.5 million Apprenticeship Fund to help small businesses who sell on Amazon, alongside Amazon Web Services (AWS) customers and smaller creative industry partners, upskill their own workforces by taking on apprentices.

Nicola Drury, Amazon UK's apprenticeships manager, explains such a route into the tech industry is for people of all backgrounds. "It’s important businesses communicate apprenticeship opportunities so we can not only attract young recruits to the industry, but also upskill and develop our existing talent,” she says. “Many people view apprenticeships exclusively as an option for school leavers when in fact it can be a great way for those of any age to upskill or change careers."

Richard Turner, senior HR manager for apprenticeships at BT, adds these schemes are crucial for the future of the industry, with the ongoing employment crisis proving the need for more career pipelines. “Coincidentally,” he says, “the timing has never been better either. Reputable apprenticeship schemes are being increasingly accepted as meaningful entry-routes into tech careers, offering candidates valuable experience and an understanding of concepts like stakeholder management, dealing with uncertainty, and operating under tight profit margins, that their graduate counterparts don't receive. They also offer a more financially viable route for young candidates, unlocking greater social mobility and diversity."

Turner also believes apprenticeships would be massively improved if tech companies worked together to offer them. "We need to bring a degree of daring boldness to the challenge. Instead of competing for talent, we need to take a shared approach,” he continues. “The government's new flexi-job apprenticeship involves doing just this. One apprentice could work across multiple tech companies, building an ever-increasing knowledge and talent pool at very little risk to any single employer."

Delivering openings for more women in tech

Another young person who’s benefitted from an apprenticeship in the tech industry is Lucy Bracken, now a FastDesk team leader at cloud host UKFast, where apprentices make up 15% of the business. She joined its apprenticeship scheme after finishing college, and while admitting women often don’t think tech’s for them, believes apprenticeships represent a brilliant way in.

“I didn't have a technical background, but technology had always fascinated me,” she tells IT Pro. “The programme at UKFast has helped me develop a clear career path in technology and given me the qualifications I need. I've received training, mentoring and guidance from some of the industry's leading experts, on network, security, operating systems, and coding. I can't think of a better place for a woman in tech to develop my career."

Looking more closely at the entry requirements, Sarah Gray, head of HR at network infrastructure firm Exponential-e, suggests potential candidates could benefit from changes to the education system. "Some tech apprenticeship applicants often lack strategic understanding and commercial awareness,” she says. “These are both skills that can be taught throughout the apprenticeship itself, but some basic business acumen is very helpful for applicants to have from the get-go. There’s a lot of work to be done by the education system to ensure these skills are taught from an earlier age, and this might involve working with businesses to provide some hands-on experience."

Sean Farrington, EVP EMEA of Pluralsight, a technology workforce development company, also believes the tech industry must take a wider view of apprenticeships. "The current approach to apprenticeships needs modernising for the 21st century; we are missing an opportunity,” he explains. “The tech sector should be using apprenticeships as a means for identifying and developing the skills and talent of individuals, regardless of their academic achievement."

Farrington cites those who've taken alternative routes to technology professions, such as using online learning platforms to learn specific skills. He also believes there’s an opportunity for the tech sector to “unearth talented individuals” through apprenticeship programmes. "With technology developing at such a rapid pace, the skills learnt in school or at university – in cloud skills, programming or AI, for example - quickly become outdated,” he adds. “An apprenticeship not only builds on these skills within the context of the workplace to ensure employees have the cutting-edge expertise needed to excel, but it also enables employers to play a more active role in shaping the talent they need while also building a culture of ongoing learning and innovation.”

Jonathan Weinberg is a freelance journalist and writer who specialises in technology and business, with a particular interest in the social and economic impact on the future of work and wider society. His passion is for telling stories that show how technology and digital improves our lives for the better, while keeping one eye on the emerging security and privacy dangers. A former national newspaper technology, gadgets and gaming editor for a decade, Jonathan has been bylined in national, consumer and trade publications across print and online, in the UK and the US.