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How IBM bolstered early careers through apprenticeships

IBM uses apprenticeships to bolster inclusion, close skills gaps and foster diversity in the tech sector

Jenny Taylor, leader of Early Professional Programmes at IBM, told HR magazine how IBM has invested in apprenticeships to boost early careers opportunities and bolster diversity.

“The UK is on a mission to become a technology powerhouse, but it faces a skills gap that presents both short- and long-term challenges for businesses,” Taylor says.

For IBM, the solution to skills shortages is to grow its own young talent. Around 95% of its 100 apprentices each year are school leavers. IBM offers various technology-based programmes with a ladder of opportunity for apprentices to embark on a progressive career from Level 2 to 7 qualifications, and to obtain promotions across digital, sales and consulting professions.

Taylor says: “On-the-job learning through apprenticeships has unequivocally proved to be the best way to equip our future workforce with the right skills in a world of digital innovation. 

“Like university graduates, our apprentices are expected to work in client-facing roles and support large projects – except they do this from day one.”

Read more: How Circle Health Group uses apprenticeships to cure talent shortages

IBM’s apprenticeship programme also forms part of its diversity and inclusion efforts, which is crucial in the technology sector where 72% of women have experienced sexism while 20% of men working in the technology sector believe that women do not have a natural fit with the industry, according to research from Virgin Media O2.

She says: “Our early professional programmes have played a major part in encouraging young talents from different backgrounds to join the tech industry. We gather diverse voices in IBM communities, creating a safe space for ethnic minorities or people from different racial backgrounds, people with disabilities, neurodiversity, LGBT+ and female empowerment.”

The programme also aids retention. IBM’s retention rate is 92%, significantly higher than the government’s target of 67%.

Taylor says: “This initiative serves as a powerful mechanism in cultivating our future leaders and contributing immensely to the development of highly valuable IBM employees.

“Throughout our organisation, former apprentices have seamlessly transitioned into diverse roles, from senior strategy consultant to product manager or IT architect.

“For me, this widespread integration of former apprentices is the ultimate validation of the model's effectiveness.”

Read more: How Virgin Media O2 uses blind recruiting for apprenticeships to close the experience gap

The programme has evolved over time. IBM started by offering a wide range of apprenticeship standards, but now concentrates on a core curriculum and has streamlined the number of learning providers to maximise efficiency.

The business has also broadened the number of roles that apprentices are deployed in through their programme, in line with the breadth of knowledge and skills they need.

Taylor adds that while the programme began in 2010, it was significantly modified following the 2017 advent of the apprenticeship levy.

She says: “The apprenticeship levy has been especially useful as it has enabled us to draw down funds to facilitate our successful apprenticeship programme. 

“Proving the business case for apprentices is always the key starting point in the planning of our early professional hiring cycle. Apprentices are a critical client-facing resource and using the levy for their training generates a return on investment from day one. 

“IBM’s various technical and consulting-based apprenticeships enable the apprentices to be productive immediately after their levy-funded induction and to embark on long and successful careers.”

However, she hopes to see the levy evolve to become more inclusive and promote T Level training.

“We would like to see the levy’s scope increased to cover T Level training. Our newly developed T Level work experience programme provides us with a new pipeline of apprentices. We focus on schools in disadvantaged areas with 1500 student days delivered so far across the country. This involves significant management and trainer resources.

“The first apprentice from this programme started with us recently. It would be particularly useful if we could draw down levy funds for our T Level training in the same way as we do for our apprenticeships. I believe this could further enhance our apprenticeship recruitment and benefit young people from a variety of different backgrounds.”