Degree apprenticeships: positive news for tech

Author: Craig Hurring, Communications Director, The Tech Partnership

Digital skills are essential for all sectors of the economy, both to transform traditional businesses and address the productivity gap, as well as to harness the innovative potential of emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things. Yet 52% of tech companies report that they have hard-to-fill vacancies and only 17% of the existing tech workforce are female. The introduction of degree apprenticeships is therefore an exciting opportunity to get larger numbers of talented people from a broad range of backgrounds into tech roles, while delivering huge benefits to the employers who hire them. In this article, Tech Partnership’s Craig Hurring sets out seven ways these new apprenticeships can transform the tech sector.

From 2 January 2018, all local-authority-maintained schools and academies must give education and training providers the opportunity to talk to pupils in years 8 to 13 about approved technical qualifications and apprenticeships.

This is welcome news. Apprenticeships are essential to address the productivity gap across the economy and, in the UK tech sector specifically, to support much-needed talent growth. Tech Partnership research shows the UK needs 138,000 new entrants each year to fill digital specialist roles in the UK, while 52 percent of companies in the tech industry are reporting hard-to-fill vacancies. This is compounded by the fact that Computer Science graduates have the highest unemployment rate six months after graduation and that only 17 percent of digital specialist roles are currently occupied by women, meaning the tech sector is missing out on almost half its potential workforce.

Figures recently released by the Department for Education reveal plummeting apprenticeship numbers following the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Interestingly, this slump has not affected the tech sector, where digital Trailblazer standards (created and developed in partnership with employers) make up 14 percent of all such programmes across England, compared to just three percent the year before. There are now 4,250 apprentices being taught using the new Trailblazer digital apprenticeship standards. Of these, over 3,400 are being taught Level 3 and Level 4 qualifications, with just over 800 being taught through the new degree apprenticeship standards.

I believe we will see the take-up of digital degree apprenticeships grow substantially over the next year, which can only be a positive thing for the UK’s digital economy. Having spoken to some of the first graduates from the scheme, and their employers, I believe there are seven key reasons why these programmes will have a transformative effect on the tech sector and society.

A pragmatic model that suits the sector

Computer Science degrees continue to play a vital role in entry-level talent entering the tech sector. But such programmes are not always designed for immediate impact, instead providing graduates with a breadth of skills to apply throughout a career in tech.

Karen Price, CEO of the Tech Partnership, comments: “Many of the businesses we represent through the Tech Partnership are seeking a more immediate impact in a sector that continues to transform itself at an extraordinary pace. The more pragmatic, blended learning approach of a degree apprenticeship therefore makes perfect sense. This is very much a situation in which everyone can benefit: employers get access to fresh new talent for their organisations, universities benefit from building closer ties with industry and enhancing their employability performance and the apprentices themselves gain a unique blend of academic and practical skills that will set them up for a successful career in tech".

Debt-free degree and essential skills

This is a huge benefit for students and parents alike. Apprentices on these programmes graduate with an honours degree, three to four years of real-life work experience, a salary, no student debt to repay and fantastic career prospects. What really makes a difference is how employers and educators come together to build degrees that support employability and workplace impact. There is a wide and growing range of programmes, reflecting what the sector currently needs, with apprentices able to specialise in areas such as business analysis, cyber security, data science, IT consultancy, network engineering and software engineering.

Employer-led and relevant learning

The Tech Partnership has supported over 200 employers in setting digital apprenticeship standards, including Accenture, Atos, BT, CGI, Ford, Fujitsu, Goldman Sachs, GSK, IBM, John Lewis, Lloyds Banking Group and Virgin Media. As well as setting the standards, employers work together on ‘Tech Industry Gold’ accreditation for those programmes, which meet their standards in both content and quality. This means that industry can invest in digital degree apprenticeships with confidence. Industry accredited programmes are now taught at sixteen universities across the UK, and this number is growing rapidly.

Performance and loyalty

There is a misconception that degree apprenticeships could lead to lower degree achievements, if taken up by learners who may have been less likely to consider a traditional university degree. Evidence suggests the contrary: the first cohort of digital degree apprentices, now working for Capgemini, graduated with a BSc in Digital and Technology Solutions from Aston University. Sixty-four percent of them achieved a First Class degree - that’s double Aston’s average for comparable Computer Science degrees.

Conversation with graduate apprentices reveals a strong loyalty to their employer too, in recognition of the opportunity they have been given. This can differ sharply from graduates at degree level, where high expectations of rapid salary growth result in regular movement between employers.

Building a balanced workforce

Degree apprenticeships provide an important opportunity for employers to diversify their workforce, by choosing the candidates most suited to the role in question. We know for instance that only 16 percent of students graduating with a traditional degree in Computer Science are female. By looking for male and female apprentices with the right levels of curiosity, passion and creativity, we can overcome some of the long-standing problems arising from the low number of girls choosing to study tech while at school, and build a more balanced and diverse workforce, reflecting the society in which we live. “The inclusive and diverse environment I work in”, says Fiona Lalo, a degree apprentice at Cisco, “makes me feel empowered to thrive. I feel like I’m on a platform where I can try different things and not feel scared". Very encouraging words for all of us to hear.

Upskilling made easy

It’s hugely important to remember that apprenticeships are not just for school leavers, and there is no age limit for a digital degree apprentice. With emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and the Internet of Things set to transform organisations in a relatively short space of time, it’s essential that employers keep their businesses up-to-date with digital skills. High performing employees will be hugely motivated by the opportunity to obtain a degree through their employer, with knowledge they can immediately apply in the workplace. Degree apprenticeships will therefore soon become a powerful retention and upskilling tool for an organisation’s existing workforce too.

Role models and brand ambassadors

At such an early stage in the degree apprenticeship story, it’s perhaps not surprising that some employers are yet to appreciate their potential. I believe this will change dramatically as more apprentices graduate. What really shines through in the current group of apprentices is how they can make an immediate difference: developing their knowledge at university and simultaneously applying it in a working environment. Equally important is the opportunity to develop work-readiness skills at the same time: since these programmes are created by employers, digital apprenticeship graduates develop vital soft skills, such as communication, presentation and relationship management, as well as up-to-date technical skills.

Ruth South, Head of Graduate, Apprentice and Placement Programmes at Capgemini commented, on seeing the first cohort of degree apprentices graduate: “We recognised the need to build our own technologists of the future to continue to reduce the digital skills gap for ourselves, our clients and the UK digital economy. Our digital degree apprentices are excellent ambassadors, very active on social media and always willing to talk about their experiences. They are fierce advocates of apprenticeships, and hugely committed to making the most of this opportunity.”

A fully digital nation will provide an additional £63bn to UK GDP and help close the productivity gap between the UK and the other G7 nations. Digital degree apprenticeships are an important contribution and will reposition the UK as a pioneer for digital skills investment in its workforce.

As Karen Price says: “By successfully closing the traditional gap between higher education and learning, and demonstrating the power of convening employers and educators together to build learning programmes, we can support the ongoing skills needs of UK business through these agile and innovative programmes".

As more students graduate, more case studies and role models showcase the impact of degree apprentices and more employers gain an understanding of the possibilities of developing a skilled workforce through the apprenticeship levy, I firmly believe we will see a dramatic increase in participation in these leading-edge new digital skills programmes.

Craig Hurring is Communications Director at The Tech Partnership, the network of employers collaborating to create the skills for the digital economy.