Degree apprenticeships can help tackle IT skills gap – but perceptions around vocational courses must be changed

Apprentices young people

40 companies have joined a scheme to hire IT apprentices in partnership with universities

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The UK government’s degree apprenticeship scheme kicked off this week, with 300 individuals embarking on technology related courses that combine university and workplace training.

While it is early days for the initiative, if successful it is hoped it could help alleviate a growing IT skills gap in the UK by equipping individuals with both academic know-how and job experience - something many employers currently feel is lacking.

However, with IT apprenticeships falling by a third last year, encouraging wider uptake of vocational IT training will mean changing the perception of apprenticeships as limited in terms of long term career prospects when compared to a degree course.

That is the view of the private sector employers and government funded bodies contributing to Tech Partnership’s strategy to promote degree apprenticeships in the IT sector.

“For the last 20 years the emphasis has been on young people entering into degrees post-A Level,” said Jon Thorn from the National Apprenticeship Service, speaking at an IBM-hosted event this week.

“We are on a journey to demonstrating to young people that they have an option, post-education, that they can undertake an apprenticeship or a degree, or both.

“We have further work to do – both as employers and government - to get young people and parents to understand the real value of a degree apprenticeship. There is a strong view that degrees are the currency you need, and that is not always true.”

What are degree apprenticeships?

Prime Minister David Cameron heralded the launch of the degree apprenticeship scheme earlier this year for offering students the opportunity to split their time between university study and workplace training. 

Courses are available at a number of institutions including Manchester Metropolitan University, Queen Mary University and Northumbria University, providing specialisms such as IT consulting, data analysis, software engineering and network engineering. (See also: How to get a job as a network engineer)

And there are some clear benefits to the combined learning apprenticeships.

Young people looking for a career in IT can graduate with a full honours degree from participating universities and, importantly, without the eye-watering levels of student debt accrued by most graduates, due to joint government and employer funding.

The courses – which tend to last between three to five years - also provide the benefits of both vocational and academic experience.

“We see the degree apprenticeships as a way of galvanising A Level students into choosing apprenticeships rather than going to university directly,” says Jenny Taylor, Foundation Manager at IBM, which is among those creating new roles in partnerships with universities.

“The degree apprenticeship offers the best of both worlds, and you have also got funding for it, which will make the apprenticeship route even more attractive.”

Degree apprenticeships: Benefit to business

A number of IT vendors – such as Fujitsu, HP and Accenture - have signed up to take on apprentices as part of the scheme, alongside and private and public sector organisations including Ford Motor Company, Network Rail and John Lewis.

Those involved say there are benefits from an employer’s perspective too. 

While graduate schemes offer their own advantages, Gordon Kent, head of emerging IT talent for Lloyds Banking Group, says individuals leaving universities with good educations are “not necessarily ready to work in larger or smaller companies”, and might not understand the company's culture.

Kent believes that the degree apprenticeship will make it easier to create IT expertise within Lloyds - a significant concern for a large bank which faces losing knowledge of legacy mainframe systems as experienced IT professionals retire.

“That [knowledge base] needs to be replaced with younger talent,” said Kent.  

“We also have some of the technologies of the future that you are all familiar with – cloud, big data, sceurity and new payments technologies – where we need and want to home-grow out own talent and technical expertise.

"We want to ‘home-grow’ our staff for the new technologies as well the legacy technologies, and we see the degree apprentice route as a perfect opportunity to do that.”

Apprenticeship 'stigma'

Degree apprenticeships are part of government plans to increase vocational learning.

One of the main challenges in driving uptake will be to shake the perception that those embarking on IT apprenticeships will find it difficult to move into higher level jobs after completing training.

Tech Partnership’s Bob Clift argues that the idea that courses which combine university and workplace learning are less demanding is inaccurate.

 “There is certainly a perception that this is a watered-down degree. I actually think it is going to be harder than getting a degree,” Clift says.

“The students who are doing this will be working full time and studying for a degree at the same. I think you will see that they will flourish because of that.”

Kent says that perceptions can be changed by highlighting the benefits of course for employers and those studying.

“There is an attitude that is still not completely embracing of the apprenticeship concept, and I think it will take little bit of time for these sorts of degree programmes to be seen as what they are, which is combined study programmes that offer great value to the company and the individual.

“There may still be some stigma of apprenticeships in terms of what they may have looked like in the past, and that probably lags where we really are.”

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