Apprentices are vital in widening the pool of IT talent

For companies in the IT sector – and across all sectors with a significant number of IT workers – apprenticeships are moving rapidly from nice-to-have to must-have.

Apprentices, mainly but not exclusively school leavers, are now vital in widening the pool of IT talent and addressing skills shortages. If the UK is to compete successfully in world markets, apprentices must be added to the graduate intake on which IT managers have historically depended for fresh talent. In the past 12 months, the UK has seen more action, more initiatives and more interest in the apprenticeship concept than over the whole of the previous decade, and nowhere more so than in the IT field.

Early this year, I was privileged to help found the Charter Group, composed of nine multinational IT vendors, including Capgemini, who all signed a charter for the employment of apprentices. Supported by e-skills UK (the Sector Skills Council for Business and IT), the British Computer Society (BCS) and Business in the Community (BiTC), the nine succeeded in defining six specific apprenticeship roles and agreeing on matters such as entry qualifications, pay scales, training requirements, timescales, standards and routes to professionally qualified status.

This was a significant move towards a sound national structure for IT apprenticeships, and the impact of the charter agreement has already been dramatic in just six months, with the number of apprentices taken on by the nine vendors rising from 200 last year to 500 confirmed places for this September's recruitment round, with further expansion planned over the next few years. All the companies involved are clear that this expansion is not at the expense of graduate recruitment programmes, which will continue to be a major source of fresh talent.

This is a point echoed by Mark Heholt, higher education consultant at e-skills: 'Apprenticeships are available to incomers of all ages, but are particularly appealing to school leavers. Their expansion will help fill skills gaps in the industry, and provide employment opportunities in this key sector to people with a broad range of backgrounds and prior achievements.'

Heholt points out that in UK IT there is still a long way to go, with only 2% of IT employers offering any form of apprenticeship, against 5% across all employers. He also highlights – rightly, in my view – the 'image deficit' for IT, and for apprenticeships, compared with university.

It is sad but true that many schools are indifferent or even hostile to the apprenticeship idea, especially for their brighter students. It is therefore good news that e-skills UK, together with the nine charter companies, are making major efforts to promote the idea of apprenticeships, and of IT careers, at school level. A particular challenge is to the fact that only 15% of school leavers entering IT apprenticeships are female.

Capgemini and others in the industry are now running 'Girls in IT' events, visits to schools, and work experience programmes for school students, all aimed at resolving the gender imbalance as a key objective.

The British Computer Society is also actively involved with apprenticeships, as Cliff Lineker, its strategic business development director, confirms: “There is a need for an average of 129,000 new entrants a year into IT roles,” he says. “We therefore strongly support the expansion in IT apprenticeship schemes, and the opportunity they provide to gain recognised professional qualifications.”

At college level, the creation of the charter group has already sparked a renewal of interest in working with employers to provide courses tailored to the needs of IT apprentices. Understandably, colleges find it easier and more attractive to cater for several hundred learners following uniform courses – a consequence of the charter group – than to meet the varying needs of many companies, each with only a handful of apprentices.

But supply – of apprenticeships and apprentice tuition – is only one side of the equation. Demand is equally important. And it is undeniable that changes in the university fees regime are prompting huge interest in apprenticeships among young people, as universities lose their charm for many.

Although apprentices may never be the complete answer to future staffing needs, they can certainly be a major component. IT managers with little or no involvement in apprenticeships should consider prompting their HR director to investigate how to get started.

Ann Brown is delivering a seminar along with Rod Kenyon, director of Apprenticeships Ambassadors Network, on ‘integrating apprenticeships schemes effectively into your organisation’s learning strategy’ at the World of Learning Conference & Exhibition, which takes place at The NEC Birmingham on 2 & 3 October 2012.

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Ann Brown (pictured) is vice president of human resources at consulting, technology and outsourcing services firm, Capgemini UK