Are apprenticeships the future of training in tech?

An engineer showing around two apprentices
(Image credit: Bigstock)

As technology advances and becomes more critical in today's interconnected world, there's a growing need for STEM specialists. Despite this, many in the industry fear there are simply not enough people with the desired digital skills to help drive forward connected innovation.

Despite recent advancements in education, there are still people who believe that governments and organisations aren't doing enough to train the tech pros of the future.

Apprenticeships, however, have emerged as a popular mode of training over traditional academic courses, offering people a vocational route into the industry.

Training of the future

American tech giant IBM is one of many companies in the industry to launch a popular apprenticeship scheme over the years. The company runs a 12-month programme designed for people who want to get a head-start in the technology world. Jenny Taylor, apprenticeship and student programme leader at the firm, is responsible for running the UK arm of the scheme.

The company launched the programme to help close the technology skills gap and to provide people with a way to enter the industry by learning on the job, Taylor explains.

"We believe apprenticeships are the future of training in technology and we have a very well established programme at IBM, she says. "We started our apprenticeship programme seven years ago ... and the results have been superb. Our apprentices have proved they can learn deep technical skills and are progressing rapidly up the organisational career ladder."

Although the scheme has had great results, she still believes degrees have a place in the industry when they're combined with apprenticeships.

"Degree offerings have opened up new recruitment channels for employers and offer an alternative to school leavers who may be choosing between a traditional University route and a degree apprenticeship. It's arguable that degree apprenticeships offer the best of both worlds, offering employment whilst studying at University, and there's less financial pressure in terms of student debt," Taylor says

Closing the skills gap

The Institute of Telecommunications Professionals, which provides a voice and accredited training for people in the sector, set up an apprenticeship scheme in 2013 to help companies attract quality talent. Since then, it's created almost 70 roles and worked with the likes of BT, Green Telecom, Level 3 Communications and Astro Communications. It also provides consultancy to member organisations on setting up schemes and the apprenticeship levy.

Crissi Williams, CEO of the Institute of Telecommunications Professionals (ITP), says that apprenticeships have the potential to fix the problem of the growing STEM skills gap. "In an industry driven by change, the ICT skills gap is widening and we are facing a digital skills crisis. With ever increasing pressure from consumers, the demand is growing all the time for new services and technologies but without the trained professionals to deliver," she tells IT Pro.

"We believe that apprenticeships are key to this issue; helping businesses to build, train and develop a workforce from scratch. Apprenticeships have come a long way with numerous options now available, including graduate schemes. Because apprentices are training as they work, it's a mutually beneficial partnership. We often hear stories of apprentices teaching the more seasoned employees about the latest trends and reverse mentoring."

The organisation has also found that apprenticeships are a cost-effective way for companies to train talent, mainly because there's third-party funding available to firms. "100% of the businesses we work with see apprenticeships as a cost-effective way to fill the skills gap. For smaller companies, government funding is available to ease the costs and for larger businesses who are already paying the Apprenticeship Levy it's essential they set up a scheme. There's still a poor take-up from larger companies, with 11,000 still yet to sign up for the government's digital account," she adds.

Marrying degrees and apprenticeships

There's no denying the fact that degrees aren't for everyone, but the same can be said for apprenticeships. Sometimes it's good to have the best of both worlds, and that's what French IT consultancy Capgemini is looking to do with its scheme. Working with Aston University, the company is running one of the country's first IT degree apprenticeship programmes. The first cohort recently graduated and 240 apprentices are currently on the scheme, who will graduate in five years.

Ruth South, head of graduate and apprenticeship programmes at Capgemini, says the company is looking to tackle all areas of training and sees apprenticeships as the future of tech training. "We've been running graduate programmes for many years and we're not planning to abandon those. However, we're also heavily invested in our own degree apprenticeship programme and by marrying studying and working simultaneously we've been able to see very real results," she says.

"Apprenticeships are still relatively in their infancy across the UK but as they become more common, school leavers will begin to see the advantages they have over traditional degrees particularly as they enter the world of work student debt-free and are able to get hands on work experience from the outset.

"We have already started to see individuals choosing apprenticeships over attending university for these reasons and as more and more fantastic apprentice role models graduate from the programmes they will continue to inspire the next generation. With the Apprenticeship Levy now in place, businesses have a perfect opportunity to invest in apprentices.

She adds: "At Capgemini ... we recognise that it's up to us to invest in the digital economy and grow the skills in this area, particularly from a female perspective, so we have a real drive to do more with the funds available."

At the end of the day, everyone's different and it's unlikely that degrees will ever become unpopular. However, apprenticeships have become a popular form of training in the technology world. They're giving people the opportunity to enter the industry and learn on the job while collecting a salary at the same time. Of course, such training is still relatively new, but we'll likely see more schemes emerge as time goes on.

Main image credit: Bigstock

Nicholas Fearn is a freelance technology journalist and copywriter from the Welsh valleys. His work has appeared in publications such as the FT, the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, the Next Web, T3, Android Central, Computer Weekly, and many others. He also happens to be a diehard Mariah Carey fan. You can follow Nicholas on Twitter.