CIOs begin to rethink apprenticeships and training

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 5, 2022 Audio mode
Despite the skills shortage, CIOs in the UK have a wealth of training methods open to them

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(Image by Hitesh Choudhary from Pixabay )

In a typical week, a CIO will be asked to accelerate the pace of digitization of an organization, whilst team members or potential recruits will demand an increase in salary. If that salary improvement is not met, well, they can and will walk out of the door to another organization - it is an employee market. Fueling this is a lack of talent entering the industry. Simply put, we don't have enough technologists to deliver on demand.

Whilst headlines in the mainstream media talk of 'the great resignation'; amongst business technology leaders, a great rethink of how technology skills are developed and retained is beginning to gather pace. This is leading to a re-appraisal of apprenticeships, new commercial training partnerships and another change in the way CIOs and CTOs lead.

According to research by European digital delivery business AND Digital, 23% of the C-suite are concerned about access to data skills. Across the Atlantic, a study by The Conference Board found that CEOs believe worker shortages are the greatest challenge to their businesses this year. Competition for skills is leading to wage rises and inflation, which in the USA reached 7.9% in January, 7% in the UK and 5.8% in the EU in February.

Against this backdrop, a growing number of CIOs and CTOs are investing, partnering and sourcing through organizations that are training the next generation of technologists. The route they take is dependent on the appetite for skills development within their organization. For some, taking raw recruits and owning the training journey ensures they get the skills the business requires. Whilst for others, the need to change direction is so imminent that they need skills instantly, so work with recruitment firms that now also train and develop technologists.

Darren Coomer, Group CIO and Chief Operations Officer of iptiQ a Swiss Re business, says:

We are paying a penalty for not investing in junior talent years ago. I need premium talent to drive our global change agenda right now. Between salaries going up significantly, and in the UK the IR35 tax changes, I'm either forced to pay top dollar or go offshore.

Should CIOs be responsible for training technologists? Some, Coomer included, think so. He says: 

The apprentices I'm investing in now will, in three years' time, give me a competitive advantage and, hopefully, a loyal workforce.

In April 2017, the UK's Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the Apprentice Levy. Organizations with a wage bill over £3 million have to pay 0.5% of that pay bill towards the Apprentice Levy. Since being launched, the Apprentice Levy has failed to make its mark, perhaps due to the significance of other events that have impacted the UK economy in the same period. However, the skills shortage is reigniting interest in apprenticeships. CIO Coomer says:

The big firms don't want to write the levy off. The levy is not going away, and there is a labour shortage.

In its early years, there was talk that organizations were, in fact, writing off the levy as another tax, as it was easier to pay the tax than invest in apprentices. Apprenticeships have a brand problem too, one that former plumber's apprentice and now head of science and technology training company, Credersi, Andy Lord is well aware of. Lord says: 

Organizations say we can't take on apprentices as they are only 17 and have no work experience, and they have to go to college one day a week. That is a myth.

Credersi provides both apprenticeships and bespoke technical training to global corporations, including Comcast and Sky, and recently launched the UK's first software testing academy. Lord explains that their apprentices take part in an initial boot camp to install the key skills the apprentice needs to get to work instantly. He says:

Apprentice means eligible to be trained and employed.

Peter Proud, CEO of Forrit and a professor of entrepreneurship, says:

We do seem to have associated training our staff as a cost rather than as an investment.

Proud revealed this to me on the day five apprentices at his Scottish technology firm graduated. Proud's apprentices have completed a four-year course in association with Edinburgh Napier University. He adds:

We have worked with Napier on the course, and they have been really good. If you put youngsters through university, you have a very enthusiastic workforce.

Lord agrees and says:

It depends on people's understanding of what an apprentice is and how they fit into an organization. At one level, it is being paid while they learn - so they can equip themselves with the skills that they need to do the job that you have hired them for.

But Lord says it is vital that CIOs realize that apprenticeships are not solely for school leavers. A number of the apprentices at Credersi are being retrained to meet the needs of a changing digital economy, and include 45-year-olds as well as graduates who find that their degree has given them broad and useful foundations in a topic, but in order to be a specialist, they need to supplement their degree with some deep training.

Proud at Forrit admits that some university courses are struggling to keep up with the pace of change in technology. He says:

Some of the programming at university is behind where we are in the industry, but the first principals are the same.

Lord adds:

With the right level of training, you don't need to add any more cost to your business. You can move people down the corridor, and it is all funded by the levy.

Using and benefiting from apprenticeships

Sean Harley, CIO with information services business Ascential has been using and benefiting from apprenticeships. Harley says:

Technology and data is a good place for a business to use apprenticeships. We have had a steady flow of apprentices through the help desk area, and then they have moved up to manage our infrastructure.

Harley adds that it's important to invest in the apprentice and how their career will develop. He explains:

We started with the process of how to develop the skills and not a job description. After all, how many people actually do what is in their job description?

Harley says it is important for apprentices to develop the right values and behaviours, and as a result, the CIO sees a strong sense of belonging from his apprentices. Fellow CIO Coomer, and backer of Creders agrees, adding that it is important to build up the skills and experience levels of an apprentice. Coomer says: 

Obviously, an apprentice bricklayer doesn't do front-facing bricks in Chelsea in their first week. Similarly, an IT apprentice is unlikely to release production code straight away. We should see it as a joint investment; over time, they'll deliver more and more. I'd suggest a crude RoI of 12 months.

Proud at Forrit is also seeing cultural benefits, where he says:

I have four technologists that would have cost me £8,000 per recruitment, and the ramp-up time is zero; they bring enthusiasm and youth, so it is good for the DNA of the company.

Trained up teams

Apprenticeships are a big bet for some businesses. They struggle to forecast their future talent demands or have an instant need for new skills. Interim transformation leader Mark Harrison worked with a training and teams-as-a-service business. He explains:

Due to the volumes of specific profile types, Sparta Global were able to grow our talent pipeline. By effectively paying an insurance premium; they helped us accelerate the onboarding by selecting from a pool of individuals that already met our criteria. This does require good engagement to ensure they have a strong understanding of the skills, culture, and environment. 

For Harrison and his client, the need for change was such that they needed modern DevOps skills but didn't have the room or time needed to effectively develop the pipeline via traditional methods. Working with a teams-as-a-service provider gave Harrison and his organization the skills they needed and the flexibility to grow their talent, initially through contractors then converting to permanent employees. Harrison says:

For us it was a lighter ask of our HR function, also as we were able to hire the high performers into the permanent team, as you just know they are a great fit for the business.

Training and teams-as-a-service businesses provide CIOs with not only instant access to recruits but are also playing an important role in developing a much-needed pipeline of new talent. Scott Vincent, CEO and founder of Digital Futures, which trains technologists and works for major banks in partnerships with AWS and IBM, to name two, says:

We recruit from non-Russell Group universities, as well as ex-forces, parents returning to work and the neurodiverse candidates. We have no training bond to exit the business because we believe if we deliver the right experience, then people will stay.

The major banks' that work with Vincent do, like Harrison, try and recruit the contractors Digital Futures has developed. But the CEO says all trainees have two options open to them at the end of their first year with the business. He says:

They can and do sometimes join our customers, or they remain with us and become team leaders.

Like apprentices of Credersi, Digital Futures provides additional depth and skills on top of the university experience, delivering a colleague that is educated at an academic and business requirements level. This is important to CIOs, as Harrison explains:

There is a gap between the government telling us to invest and then what the education system produces. The product from education is not what a business needs in terms of diversity of thought, creativity and problem-solving.

Harrison echoes the concerns of both CIOs and educators who fear that a decade of cuts to education with too much focus on passing tests is failing the economy and those leaving school and university. The need for graduates to solve more and more complex problems in new and creative ways will only continue to grow, thus increasing the gap.

Leadership role

CEO Proud says being a C-suite leader means there are responsibilities:

If we could serve up opportunities to our youth, then we would thrive as an economy. Something has got to change.

These people have been crucial to us in the workplace. They bring confidence, and one of these graduates is going on to lead a team, and she will do a management course next. Another started as a developer, but he was not going to be a good developer, so we changed his apprenticeship into cybersecurity, as he has good process skills.

At Digital Futures, Vincent sees a direct benefit from dealing directly with the CIO and not the HR department. He says:

As we pivot to a skills-based economy, it raises the question of the role of the HR team.

CIO Coomer says peers should have a three-year plan that focuses on developing apprentices and talent within their team, which Lord at Credersi describes as:

If you see longevity in the skills you need, then why not invest in training? It is like the youth system in football. When Manchester United did it, former player Allan Hanson said, 'you'll never win anything with kids.' Well, we all know how that panned out; now, most clubs have a youth system.

Run two projects in tandem, one - solve my here and now. The other, solve my future. Put some appropriate time and effort into it, and then here and now, well, that becomes less of a challenge.

My take

In our polarized society, discussions about apprenticeships, training or university education sadly quickly become a source of division. When it comes to education and training, it is never a case of either-or. Apprenticeships, training and university education are always highly valuable. In the rapidly changing world of business and technology, it is likely that both will be necessary at some point in every employee's career.

The two most important things to keep in mind are: to select the correct learning style for the individual; secondly, to remember that all of us, like our digital devices, will need regular updates in order to keep up with changes in technology, business and society. Organizations that invest in the education of their technologists will benefit in numerous ways. 

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