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Apprenticeships are key to driving dynamism and growth in the UK’s digital economy

Gill Crowther, HR Director at Nominet, argues that apprenticeships provide a necessary part of the blueprint for Britain’s digital future

Gill Crowther, HR Director at Nominet, argues that apprenticeships provide a necessary part of the blueprint for Britain’s digital future

The IT industry has the potential to make a huge impact on the UK economy and to really give it a boost. Tech companies need to take a more proactive approach when sourcing talent creating an environment in which aptitude can be nurtured.

Today’s education system is not engaging enough to prepare young people, in particular girls, for careers in technology. Relying on schools and parents to make the case for considering digital careers doesn’t seem to be working. Almost two thirds of girls (65%) report that their ICT education had no impact on their ICT career aspirations at all, despite the fact that 78% of girls are actually interested in working for a technology company. In order to prevent young people from immediately ruling themselves out of working in the IT sector before they’ve even finished school, we need to help inspire them about the world of work and get them thinking about the possibilities for engaging jobs that are available to them, well before university. Great teaching will help, as will inspirational role models, who can enthuse about the wide range of opportunities in the IT sector and a real focus on helping young people understand what the world of work should be like for them!

Unfortunately there are still common misconceptions which are putting young people off the IT industry from an early age. In order for us to build the sector, it is vital to rebrand the perception of IT as a great place to work. Around half of 13-24 year old students believe that all careers in the IT sector are very technical. .  Actually there are just as varied a set of roles to do in the IT industry as any other and the key selling factor is the exciting and dynamic nature of the sector and the fact that young people are far more equipped to make a difference in technology as they have lived with it and used it every day of their lives.

Another misconception is the idea that the IT industry is a ‘man’s world’. When visiting a local school in Oxfordshire to run an IT career workshop, students were surprised to learn that Nominet’s overall staff make up is 51% male and 49% female, and that there are great opportunities for women to flourish in IT in a variety of roles. While I appreciate that this may not be the norm across every IT company, I do strongly believe that this industry is one of the fairest out there, where outstanding performance, ability and determination can take you to the top.

A lot of young people believe that you need an ICT education or qualification to work in the IT industry. For some very technical roles, a professional qualification is essential but for most other roles this is simply not the case. I didn’t have an ICT education and there are a whole range of different skills required for my role. There are also multiple routes young people can take to start their IT career; from college and university courses to workplace apprenticeships. 

The best way to encourage the younger generation into a career in IT is to give them the experience of what they could achieve if given the opportunity. Young people love all things online, whether it is using social media sites, playing music on YouTube or shopping online. They are already excited about computers and technology; we now need to show them that it can be can be more than just a communication medium, but an actual career. Not enough people have the mind-set that technology is exciting, so it should be our responsibility, as leaders in this industry, to show them. Companies should be encouraged to offer work experience placements to school pupils, to offer them a taster of what it would be like to work in technology. Give young people an insight into this world, and they will hopefully understand the opportunities that are available to them.

Apprentice schemes are a good starting point as they can offer students, fresh out of school, and the chance to gain on-the-job skills alongside college studies. On these schemes, the lucky few apprentices are not there to complete mundane administrative tasks. They are there to immerse themselves in the work, get involved in current projects and develop a deep understanding of what the company does, whilst adding value to the business from day one. Apprenticeships are an extremely positive way to show young people that they can be a valued member of an organisation and really make a difference to the company. Financially, apprenticeships offer young people a reasonable income, vital considering the cost of tuition at UK universities. Although young people on these schemes are given independence, there is a constant backbone of support from a team of people at the company.

In the technology industry, the market place for hiring people can be very tough, so having an alternative route to find raw talent is ideal. From a company’s perspective, apprenticeships allow them to source fresh young minds, who are hungry to learn. This is a very dynamic industry and things are constantly moving, so being able to find new talent is always a bonus. It is also a cost effective way of adding to your company, so makes good business sense.

Our own programme, now in its third year, has already paid dividends. From day one, our apprentices are integrated straight into the company. They are given real projects to work on, whilst at the same time given constant coaching and mentoring from their close teams. As well as gaining practical experience of what it is like to work in a technology company, the apprentices are able to achieve tech qualifications that will help them move on after they finish the programme.

The people we’ve taken on as apprentices are all still employed by the company and are doing really well. They’ve worked on real projects including supporting our move to new server infrastructure and development of an application for querying millions of registration logs. They are great ambassadors for the business. They’re testament to the value of the programme.

Whilst statistics show that young people are interested in a career in IT, the industry needs to redouble its efforts to inspire, train, attract and recruit from the whole talent pool. If we think about the impact the IT industry can have on the UK economy and the growth potential it can offer, we must start to feel urgency about seeking out the best and brightest minds in the next generation.