What is a digital apprenticeship and should your firm take on apprentices?

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The UK’s issues with IT skills and productivity are well-documented and one potential solution can be found in digital apprenticeships. As a lever of long-term investment in one’s workforce, apprenticeships are seen as one of the keys to unlocking the untapped potential of young people.

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The benefits of a four-day week in tech

Digital apprenticeships combine learning with a paid job within the tech sector, often with the promise of a full-time position at the end of a fixed apprenticeship term. Though young workers are often those filling digital apprentice positions, there’s no age limit so it’s a salaried training avenue open to anyone wanting to enter the tech sector.  

Recent research from BCS, The Chartered Insitute for IT and UCAS cites a 10% rise in learners opting for digital apprenticeships and explicitly links this rise with surging interest in AI. New government-backed apprenticeship schemes, such as the AI Data Specialist apprenticeship, help train applicants to work with algorithms and data science. As firms respond to the rise of generative AI and look to upskill staff to address the AI skills gap, leaders could harness the link between AI interest and digital apprenticeships to address two problems at once.

At present, digital apprenticeships are not the most popular form for apprenticeships, as the information and communication technology sector ranked just sixth out of a total of thirteen sectors for apprenticeship starts across the 2022/23 period per GOV UK data. Tech leaders should consider the benefits of digital apprenticeships can bring to their business and invest accordingly.

How are digital apprenticeships funded?

Firms that consider taking on an apprentice can fall at the first hurdle if they think that the funding situation is complex or will leave them out of pocket. Or that the day-to-day workload involved is challenging. After all, apprenticeship mixes on-the-job experience and “schoolbook” learning and so requires a different approach to the working day/week /month from the employer. 

While the productivity of individual apprentices is unlikely to match seasoned workers when they first enter the workforce, the fact that they’re learning on the job must also be factored into the equation by any leader. Digital apprenticeship costs in the short term translate into gains with one’s workforce in the longer term.

While there is some complexity to the funding situation, which varies across England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, government support for the training element exists. According to the UK government’s own apprenticeships research, firms can expect to gain between £2,500 and £18,000 a year per apprentice they take on throughout the extent of their training. This is because apprentice outputs are usually greater than the associated costs. Once an apprentice has completed their training, the gains can grow as costs are removed. 

The benefits of digital apprenticeships for businesses

It isn’t just financially that firms can gain from having apprentices, though the difference between filling a key role and not filling it can be substantial. Clar Rosso, CEO of a non-profit member organization for cybersecurity professionals ISC2 tells ITPro about three more key benefits: 

  • Bridging the IT skills gap by quickly training  individuals for specific roles needed within an organization.
  • Investing in the future workforce by taking on apprentices once their training is complete. This makes onboarding easier, ensures the new hire fits in with one’s workplace culture, and locks in ongoing professional development which can address staff turnover rates.
  • And diversifying the field as apprentices may have more diverse backgrounds than traditionally found in ICT roles.

Will Clive, chief people officer at Pluralsight adds one further insight, in the context of productivity gains: 

“[A]pprenticeships provide a platform for hands-on learning, allowing apprentices to actively contribute to projects and tasks from day one – and help increase team productivity.”

It isn’t just the apprentices that gain new skills, either. Existing workers and the wider organization can also benefit. “Existing employees can upskill by managing and mentoring apprentices, and digital apprentices also offer new perspectives to businesses to improve processes,” says Rosso. Looked at in this way there are gains for every aspect of the business. 

Why are digital apprenticeships good for employees?

Apprenticeships are a two-way street, and apprentices take this route because they see advantages for themselves. The most obvious gain for apprentices is a paid job with associated learning, but they can also bring great benefits on a personal level.

Rebecca Harrison, head of asset intelligence at Anglian Water tells ITPro that younger workers are especially likely to benefit from digital apprenticeship schemes, which “allow young individuals to get early exposure to real-world industry scenarios, a sense of realistic workload and expectations, and what it means to work as a part of a larger team”. 

Acclimating to a working environment before taking on a full-time role there could help prevent employees from burning out and train directly under skilled leaders within the workplace. Just as firms can benefit from the diversity that apprentices can bring to their organizations, employees can use apprenticeships as routes into roles that might otherwise be difficult to access.

Clive tells ITPro that through its partnership with Apprenti, Pluralsight One has been able to “create pathways to professional employment for underrepresented populations, giving them access to valuable hands-on experience and learning opportunities to help them grow and pursue a successful career in the tech industry”.

When apprentices stay with firms they can themselves become part of the mentoring network for the next intake, “Many of our past apprentices have seamlessly transitioned into permanent roles within our company, and have become themselves mentors to the next cohort of digital apprentices joining us this year,” says Harrison.

Digital apprentices: An unmissable opportunity

While digital apprentices are not the entire solution to the skills shortage in technology, they do have the potential to help firms fill some of their skills gaps, grow the diversity of their workforce, and gain employees who will be with them for longer than their training period. 

As Rosso summarises: “The digital skills gap has propelled the attractiveness of digital apprenticeships for both employers and candidates. Businesses can find top talent at a lower cost while offering development opportunities for entry-level professionals. At a time of economic instability and a highly competitive job market, this is a win-win for both parties.”

Sandra Vogel
Freelance journalist

Sandra Vogel is a freelance journalist with decades of experience in long-form and explainer content, research papers, case studies, white papers, blogs, books, and hardware reviews. She has contributed to ZDNet, national newspapers and many of the best known technology web sites.

At ITPro, Sandra has contributed articles on artificial intelligence (AI), measures that can be taken to cope with inflation, the telecoms industry, risk management, and C-suite strategies. In the past, Sandra also contributed handset reviews for ITPro and has written for the brand for more than 13 years in total.