Is it possible to plug the UK’s digital skills gap with apprentices?
At a recent Cloud Industry Forum broadcast that focused on the UK’s widening digital skills gap, I closed my contribution to the presenter’s final question “if there was one thing you would like people to do to start addressing the issue” with the conclusion, “take on an apprentice”.
Whether the blame for this shortfall on people with the right digital skills lies with the education system and its ability to provide quality training, Brexit or the retreat of EU workers from the UK, the problem is at present a real one with no prospect of it going away in the short term.
Whilst there has been notable initiatives from government, education and business to create quality programmes that provide the tech sector with a steady business-ready workforce, it’s fair to say that employers are still frustrated that many students are still leaving the education system, be they school-leavers or graduates, lacking the key skills required to cut it in today’s choppy business environment, including problem-solving and soft skills.
Whether apprenticeships carry unhelpful connotations of a limited range of options, the truth is there are plenty of focused programmes available today to fill those gaps.
The benefites of apprenticeships
Apprenticeships, of course, may not be the sole solution, but they offer a realistic avenue for young and older apprentices to develop their skills and make an important contribution within the workplace. The business, in return, improves staff retention with apprentices feeling a sense of loyalty to their employer cum educator as well as improved productivity.
Apprenticeships such as junior software developer will only continue to grow in importance as technology transcends sectors. Apprenticeships can also train to a higher level and allow apprentices the opportunity to pursue career paths in areas where there are skills shortages.
If further encouragement was needed, the government helps companies finance their apprenticeships training. If a company’s annual wage bill is over £3milliom and they pay the 0.5% Apprenticeship Levy (“the Levy”), they can use the Levy funds in their account under the government’s apprenticeship service to pay for apprenticeship training, but to do so they must register first. If a company doesn’t pay the Levy, they can still get government help for their apprenticeship training. Such companies, if they want to take on an apprenticeship, can share the cost of training and assessing their apprentices with the government. This “co-investment” is currently shared on a 90:10 basis with the employer paying the 10%. From April 2019, the employer’s co-investment rate for apprenticeship training halves to 5%.
So, while there are shortcomings with the Apprenticeship Levy and with apprenticeship training generally with some thinking the system too rigid and inflexible, I believe that companies should not be put off by this and should instead explore the apprenticeship system on offer and see if it meets some or all of their training and skill needs. If it does, they can use government money that is there for them that would otherwise go to waste (funds in your apprenticeship service account expire after 24 months). If the apprenticeship service doesn’t meet their needs, they have lost nothing other than the time taken to investigate.