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Getting technology apprenticeships right - digital leaders explain how apprentices can enable business change

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth February 7, 2024
In UK National Apprenticeship Week adoption of technology apprenticeships is improving, as digital leaders explain how to get the most from growing your own talent

a teacher hand holding a book bridging the technical skills gap in ERP for a group of people walking on © FGC - Shutterstock
(© FGC - Shutterstock)

As we head towards the mid-point in the 2020s, there is little sign of a let up in the global demand for data and technology skills. Digital leaders in all markets are struggling to find and retain the right resources. In some economies, this is more acute than in others. Since 2017, the UK has had an additional tax on businesses to promote apprenticeship training. 

Digital leaders who have taken the plunge on apprenticeships are finding the training option ideal for driving business change, reskilling and finding a creative solution to recruitment challenges. Despite this good news, apprenticeships still face problems. 

As we reported recently, 50% of digital leaders plan to increase their headcount, and 65% say the rising cost of living is impacting recruitment as candidates demand higher salaries. The old solution of seeking wage arbitrage overseas no longer works. Heineken CIO Breno Gentil told diginomica he is experiencing challenges in Poland, for example. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has been monitoring these trends, and Lizzie Cowley, Senior Skills Policy Advisor, says: 

When you look at the global mega-trends such as an ageing population, then the idea that you can just buy your talent is a broken model. So organizations need to rethink their talent and workforce strategies, and those firms that thrive will be those that think strategically about skills.

A growing number of digital leaders are finding that apprenticeships are part of being a strategic recruiter. Chris Gibson, Group Head of Technical Services of property and investment services firm Grosvenor, has used apprenticeships in the past:

We found people had tried other careers and wanted to retrain and get a foot on the ladder of technology and came to us through apprenticeships.

He found these recruits were often in their 20s and had the drive and ambition he needed, coupled with some experience of other roles and lives, he adds: 

They understood that working in technology was better than some of the other things they had done.

David Leach, Executive Director and CIO of construction firm Novus Property Solutions says being known as an organization that provides apprenticeships have benefits in the recruitment market:

People are often moving jobs for very small amounts of money, so we need to differentiate ourselves in a way that is meaningful to our business culture and family values. In addition, quite a lot of the learning about technology and data is very structured, which lends itself to apprenticeships.

Anna-Lisa Miller, CIO of Spectris, a specialist measurements company, agrees with Leach on the benefits apprenticeships offer in the marketplace, especially for skills that are in high demand.

Miller has used cybersecurity apprenticeships to not only guarantee Spectris had a team on hand but also to increase the diversity and age range of the technology team. Bill Bennetts, CIO for Millbrook Healthcare, says apprenticeships enabled IT to recruit and develop seconded employees to his department and improve business outcomes: 

We brought people in from other business roles as part of an implementation, and as they were carrying out software development, we added in apprenticeship training.

Change of direction

With digital leaders charged with changing business processes and operating models, the old adage of ‘change the people or change the people’ feels partially redundant in a tight labour market. Whereas in the past, the adage often meant redundancy followed by recruitment of new staff with different skills, now organizations need to really think about encouraging and providing routes for employees to change with the organization, something Bennetts and Leach have succeeded at. Novus, like many firms, needs to become data-driven in its decision-making. 

Using apprenticeships, a series of non-IT and non-data workers became data champions for Novus via an apprenticeship. Leach says: 

We have Data and Analytics Level 4 apprentices on a 14-month programme, and they are spread right across our business. 

The aim is to help people that want to use technology to do their jobs a little bit differently and learn some skills. They are also a network of people that the data and technology teams can reach out to for testing and operational input into solution design.

Leach is seeing digital benefits across his organization, and Cowley at the CIPD says this is common in organizations that seek to get the most from apprenticeships: 

A lot of employers are not aware of the return on investment from taking on apprentice programmes.

Both Gibson at Grosvenor and Bennetts agree. Gibson says: 

It is very cost-effective; as long as you give the apprentices the support, then it will pay you back.

And Bennetts found: 

We saw immediately the effect of having someone that has the business knowledge to complement the testing methodology. Plus, it was cost-effective as we made savings and were more sophisticated in our testing.

Darren Coomer, an experienced CIO who also founded The S&A Academy to deliver technology apprenticeships, adds that digital leaders often find increased loyalty from apprentices: 

Apprentices are more loyal to the company as you gave them a chance. I discovered apprenticeships when I was with Swiss Re, and we used to on-board thousands of graduates a year, but so many of them leave after the first year. So apprenticeships are an opportunity to train people for the role you originally recruited for.

In addition, a professional apprenticeship is a viable alternative to university, which doesn’t suit all people. We really have taken bedroom coders who are passionate about tech from unemployed status to thriving professional developers and software testers.

Completion failure 

Although these digital leaders are succeeding with apprenticeships, there is still cause for concern. A study by the Department for Education (DFE) in 2023 found that nearly half of apprentices fail to complete their training. This study looked at all types of apprenticeships. According to Cowley at CIPD: 

The main causes are the employer not allowing enough learning time, unsuitable training and poor organization of the apprenticeship.

This is leading to a workforce that doesn’t have the skills that organizations are going to need to compete, Cowley adds: 

The evaluation by the DFE shows that many are not leaving for another job; they are staying with the employer, but they don’t see the value in completing the apprenticeship.

Miller at Spectris said this was something she focused on when setting up her cybersecurity apprenticeship: 

We were being told about the drop-out rates, and so we thought carefully about the environment we were providing and bringing the apprentice into. We didn’t want a drop-out to be because of us. It is important to think about how you make it easy and rewarding for the apprentice.

Ian Brown, Group CISO at Spectris with Miller, adds: 

We have taken the decision not to pay apprentices poorly. You can, but then you are not going to attract the talent. We benchmarked our pay against the civil service. Also, you have to find the right training provider.

Leach had the same attitude as Miller and Brown: 

If you are going to do apprenticeships right, you need to have the right infrastructure around them, and we have seen when you get that right, the potential of the apprentice is very high, and when you get it wrong, then the retention is low.

Gibson says this starts right at the beginning: 

The hiring process was the most important part of getting the right apprentice and making sure you pay as much attention as you would any other recruit.

Apprentice provider Coomer agrees with his peers: 

Make sure you hire properly. Too often, the employer is not doing enough pre-qualified work on the candidates in the first place. Employers need to understand an apprenticeship is a formal three-way contract (employer, apprentice, apprenticeship training company). Our advice to employers is to incentivize apprentices to complete their training pathways. We see no evidence of people pulling out early by choice.

Like Brown, Gibson says effort in selecting the right training provider is vital and says one firm he worked with provided additional support to apprentices beyond their training and ‘kept the business honest’ in terms of its commitments to the apprentice. He says digital leaders must strike a fine balance of throwing challenges at the apprentices, which they enjoy and learn from, but also making sure they do not neglect the study elements. 

Poor branding

Since diginomica last reported on apprenticeships, there has been an increase in awareness, and the CIPD says it finds 80% of businesses have some knowledge of apprenticeships, but it would be a stretch to claim that since their “relaunch” with the levy in 2017 that they have become a mainstay of tech skills development. The digital leaders that we spoke to were largely using apprenticeships for reskilling. It is important to note, though, that many other CIOs are using apprenticeships to train new recruits. 

Where technology apprenticeships are succeeding is in organizations and vertical markets with a heritage of training the workforce it requires. Construction firms like Novus have that heritage, but as Leach says, it still takes leadership: 

If you want instant results, apprenticeships are not right, but if you want to build long-term capabilities in data and a mindset shift for the organization, then they are ideal.

Brown at Spectris looks beyond national borders and says: 

We have a big presence in Germany, and apprenticeships have been going on for decades as there is no stigma attached to them, and that really helps.

Across all vertical markets, Germany has a healthy regard for subject matter expertise and skills development. Brown says the stigma is decreasing in the UK, and when he speaks at schools, he finds a greater understanding of apprenticeships from pupils and teachers. 

My take 

UK technology apprenticeship usage and awareness is increasing, and that is a good thing. Looking at the entire apprenticeship landscape, a drop out rate of nearly half is not acceptable. Fortunately, the technology sector doesn’t appear to have this problem. If schools or universities had a similar performance, there would, rightly, be an outcry. Clearly, employers and apprenticeship providers need to do more. 

But for apprenticeships to succeed, we need a cultural change in digital leadership; the decades of being consumers of talent, grabbing skills as and when required from a global supermarket, are coming to an end. The demand is so high that all organizations and digital leaders need to contribute to the development of technologists. All of the digital leaders spoken to for this article found talent in people who, for personal reasons, were unable to remain in education or who could increase the value they offered their employers. Those talents could have been lost.

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