NAW2018 – Seven ways Degree Apprenticeships will transform the tech sector

By Craig Hurring, Communications Director, The Tech Partnership

Since 2 January 2018, all local-authority-maintained schools and academies are now required to 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, as apprenticeships are an essential solution to addressing the productivity gap generally, and within our own sector, supporting the much-needed talent growth the UK requires in tech. Tech Partnership research shows the UK needs 138,000 new entrants each year to fill digital specialist roles in the UK and 52% of companies in the tech industry are reporting hard-to-fill vacancies. Recruitment difficulties are further compounded by Computer Science degrees having the highest unemployment rate 6 months after graduation – currently 9% according to HESA data – and by the fact that only 17% 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 levy introduction in general, but interestingly this has not affected the tech sector, where digital Trailblazer standards, created and developed in partnership with employers, are currently 14% of all such programmes across England, compared to just 3% the year before. According to latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE), since the introduction of the new Trailblazer digital apprenticeship standards, there’s been over 7,000 starts recorded to date on these standards, of which 1,430 starts for the degree apprenticeship.

I believe we will see digital degree apprenticeship take-up grow substantially over the next year, which can only be a positive thing for the UK digital economy. Clearly some employers are still struggling with the concept of a degree that is an apprenticeship, but having spoken to some of the first graduates and their employers, I believe there are seven key reasons why these programmes will have a transformative effect on the tech sector and society:

1. 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 transforms itself at an extraordinary pace. The more pragmatic, blended learning approach of a degree apprenticeship therefore makes perfect sense. This is very much a case of 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.”

2. Debt-free degree and essential skills

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.

3. 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 to accredit as ‘Tech Industry Gold’ those programmes which meet their standards in terms of both content and quality. This means that industry can invest in digital degree apprenticeships with confidence, and industry accredited programmes are now taught at 16 universities across the UK, with this number growing rapidly.

4. Performance and loyalty

There is a misconception that degree apprenticeships could lead to lower degree achievements, if take-up originated from learners who were less likely to consider a traditional university degree. Evidence suggests this is quite the contrary: the first cohort of digital degree apprentices to graduate work for Capgemini and graduated with a BSc in Digital and Technology Solutions, from Aston University, with 64% achieving a First – 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 there are sometimes high expectations of rapid salary growth through regular movement between employers.

5. 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% 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 that begin with the low number of girls choosing tech education while at school, and build a more balance workforce that is more reflective of society and addresses the groupthink productivity issues that beset a homogenous workforce.

“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.

6. Upskilling made easy

It’s hugely important to remember that apprenticeships are not just for school leavers, and there is no age limit to be a digital degree apprentice. The anticipated impact on organisations in a relatively short space of time of developments in tech such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things means 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.

7. Role models and brand ambassadors

With so much misinformation and confusion, it’s perhaps not unsurprising that some employers are yet to consider the possibilities of using degree apprenticeships. I believe this will change dramatically as more apprentices graduate. What really shines through in the current group of apprentices is how as well as developing their knowledge at university, by simultaneously applying this knowledge in a working environment they are making a real difference. Importantly too since these programmes are created by employers, they develop not only good technical skills, but the equally important soft skills, meaning graduating digital apprentices also have broad work-readiness skills, such as communication, presentation and effective relationship management.

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 transform our worrying productivity gap from the remaining G7 nations. Digital degree apprenticeships are an important contribution to resolving this problem and repositioning the UK as a pioneer for digital skills investment in its workforce.

Adds Karen Price, “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.”

I firmly believe as more students graduate with degree apprenticeships, as case studies and role models showcasing the impact of degree apprentices become more apparent and as employers gain understanding of the possibilities of developing skills through the apprenticeship levy, we will see a dramatic increase in participation in these leading-edge new digital skills programmes.

Find out more about tech degree apprenticeships


( This article originally appeared on the Observatory for a Connected Society, a new app developed by Corsham Institute and RAND Europe to bring together all the latest news, analysis and insight on digital and tech policy. Read more about the Observatory and download the app here )