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UK National Apprenticeship Week - apprenticeships increase software tester diversity

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth February 6, 2023
For UK National Apprenticeship Week, Roq reveals how apprenticeships can tackle skills and diversity shortages

Creative group of business people brainstorming putting sticky notes on glass wall in office © Flamingo Images - Shutterstock
(© Flamingo Images - Shutterstock)

Software and engineering testers, like their peers in application development, cybersecurity and data science, are in short supply. In addition, diversity is poor amongst this group. To tackle poor diversity and the skills shortage, organizations have to explore a range of different avenues to find the talent they need. One such avenue is apprenticeships, and as the UK enters its 16th National Apprenticeship Week, Lancashire-based Roq, a specialist in quality engineering, has added apprenticeships to its recruitment drive in order to increase diversity. 

The World Quality Report from French systems integrators Capgemini finds that software testing is a cost concern for 60% of the CIOs and CTOs surveyed. Software testing application provider Jetbrains sponsored a study that found that in 44% of technology teams, there is one tester for every 10 developers, which will clearly create backlogs or missed errors. 

Roq decided that for 2023 it would add apprenticeships to its recruitment mix, not only to increase the number of testers it can offer to its clients in sectors such as automotive, financial services and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), but also to tackle diversity. Sarah Riggott, Head of People at Roq, says: 

There is a diversity problem. To have different opinions and ways of working in the teams enhances the experience. It contributes to the dynamic of the teams and, therefore, the business.

In order to ensure the apprenticeship - and their existing graduate recruitment programme - encouraged diversity, Roq changed the language used in its recruitment programme. Riggott says: 

Women often feel the door is closed to them, and girls are not attracted to computer science subjects.

We advertised the role as: do you have good attention to detail? Do you like fixing things and problem-solving? Do you like talking to people? So we came at it in a different way.

Roq has had a graduate recruitment and training initiative in place for a decade, but Riggott says additional recruitment avenues were necessary to increase diversity and address the digital skills gap. She adds: 

We have always done a lot with schools and colleges to raise awareness of testing and quality engineering as a career. The apprenticeship is a natural next step to support people coming into the industry.

The apprenticeship programme is not only recruiting those leaving education. Roq is also working with the Career Transition Partnership, from the Ministry of Defence (MoD), to secure former armed forces employees that possess the attention to detail, interpersonal skills and problem-solving that quality software engineering requires. 

Class of 2023

Eleven apprentices joined Roq in January 2023. The class of 2023 includes two women, one returning to work having had a family, two graduates and a number of ex-armed forces employees. Riggott says: 

All of the apprentices come from very varied backgrounds.

The cohort is currently undergoing a 12-week boot camp. Ten weeks of which are operated by the S&A Academy, which has been providing boot camps to Roq for its graduate training programme and is a government-accredited apprenticeship training provider. Each apprentice will gain ISTQB certification and learn tools such as JIRA and Azure DevOps, as well as a deep understanding of languages such as C# and Java. After 12 weeks at the boot camp, the apprentices are on the shop floor, where Roq’s personnel provide additional training on the internal frameworks and assets used by the business. Training continues for a further 12 months, Riggott says:

We then get them onto the client work and add in additional masterclasses on soft skills and Agile working methods, for example. We find it works really well for them to do the boot camp and then to get them onto a project and put their knowledge into practice.

Apprentice Levy 

Back in 2015, the current UK government announced the Apprenticeship Levy, which came into force in the tax year 2017-2018. In its early years, the Apprenticeship Levy was dogged with criticism for being cumbersome, and there were reports that large organizations were happier to pay the tax than set up apprenticeships. However, the skills shortage in the UK, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the current government’s policy to leave the European Union, has increased interest in apprenticeships. 

The Apprenticeship Levy is an additional tax on organizations. Once a business has an annual pay bill over £3 million, it has to pay the Apprenticeship Levy, at a rate of 0.5% of that total pay bill. The UK tax authority HMRC collects the Apprenticeship Levy alongside other employment taxes. 

Roq began paying the Apprenticeship Levy a year ago and decided to use the programme. Riggott says: 

The apprenticeship pot payment we make will cover 1.5 of our apprentices in full, and then we use the government funding for the other apprentices, which requires us to pay a further 5% per apprentice.

For organizations that do not utilize the full amount of money they pay into the Apprenticeship Levy pot, there is an ability to transfer 25% of the unused levy to other businesses, a scheme Roq considered, however as Riggott says: 

The red tape was ridiculous, and we would not get confirmation that we would receive the funds until the last minute, and we didn’t want that uncertainty.

Given the scale of the skills shortage and the demand for digital transformation in organizations, it is sad to hear that, just like the poor quality trade deals, red tape is holding back not only businesses but, much more worryingly, the workforce, youth and future talent of the UK. 

My take

CIOs and CTOs need to adopt the example of the vendor here and embrace apprenticeships in order to tackle the skills shortage and poor diversity. Across all vertical markets and walks of life, traditional routes towards a career have been challenged, and organizations have to utilize each and every one of these options to secure talent. 

Apprenticeships have mistakenly been overlooked by business and technology leaders. But in a rapidly digitizing and highly skilled economy, they need to be used in order to ensure graduates gain the skills the organization requires in addition to their degree. Apprenticeships also provide the ability to secure the skills and enthusiasm for those that, for whatever reason, did not succeed in traditional education or were prevented from further studies by their financial position. It is time to test out apprenticeships. 

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