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Solving the digital skills gap
Education & Skills

Solving the digital skills gap 

This year marks 10 years of QA apprenticeships. In the last decade, we have matched more than 8,000 young people with forward-thinking Scottish employers, today we have apprentices on programmes with over 500 organisations in Scotland. These are milestones that the team and I are very proud of.

Sadly, for many young people in Scotland, this year is providing less reason to celebrate. While the latest Royal Bank of Scotland Purchasing Manager’s Index reported the strongest ever level of business confidence for the year ahead, it also confirmed that the Scottish economy remains in downturn. This has consequences for young people in Scotland; at the end of the third quarter, the number of Modern Apprenticeship starts for 2020/21 was about 50 per cent lower than 2019/20.

Rightly the government has put a number of initiatives in place to reverse this. The First Minister recently announced an investment of £15m to help more employers take on apprentices.

Specifically, grants will provide £5,000 for employers taking on or upskilling an apprentice aged 16 to 24, or individuals aged up to 29 years who are disabled, care leavers or minority ethnic.

Initiatives such as “adopt an apprentice” and the apprentice transition plan will also help to ensure that apprentices that were mid-programme when the pandemic hit do not lose their footing in the job market.

These interventions place apprenticeships firmly at the centre of the talent strategy required to rebuild our economy, our services and our businesses in Scotland. They also mean that there has never been a better time for employers to reap the rewards of apprenticeships.

FAR-REACHING BENEFITS

Skills Development Scotland’s latest apprentice and employer survey shows the value that apprenticeships can provide to both employers and young people. It shows 91 per cent of young people completing an apprenticeship are still in employment after six months. But the opportunity to grow new talent is also an important consideration.

QA’s client, Kick ICT Group, has been using apprentices for several years. “We could get someone who is experienced but we like the idea of growing our own talent at Kick ICT,” says head of support Donald MacKay.

“We work closely with our apprentices to immerse them in our company culture and our ways of working. Equally, our apprentices have a tendency to think more freely, giving us the opportunity to develop new ideas for our business and our customers.”

At a time when innovation is in high demand to drive growth, the opportunity to introduce different ways of thinking should not be underestimated.

Robert Johnston, managing director at Emax Systems, says: “Apprentices bring an X-factor to the office environment. They have grown up with the internet, software and apps which gives them a whole different perception of how tech should work which is refreshing. They can be quite bold too. They have no problem sharing their ideas with us.”

Some employers proactively embrace this confidence, introducing upwards mentoring which pairs apprentices with more experienced managers for a day.

John Whitehill, IT operations and security director, explains how this works at Aggreko, “There’s a fearlessness and an informality that apprentices bring into the organisation that keeps things real. We encourage apprentices to sit alongside colleagues and to question ways of using our IT systems. Obviously, colleagues have to be comfortable with feedback from 16 to 18-year-olds for this to work but the process simulates different thinking at the end of the day which is brilliant.”

Apprenticeships are particularly critical in the tech sector. Every single IT organisation is battling with a skills strategy at the moment. It is challenging to find individuals with software development or cloud services but on top of that technology is moving so fast that skills go out of date quickly.

For Aggreko, apprenticeships are an obvious way of dealing with this. “You need to think ahead when it comes to your talent strategy, reactively sourcing talent when the next project comes along is just not practical. Apprenticeships help us grow the tech skills we need, while increasing the depth of our talent pool for succession planning and role rotations.”

The skills benefit of a Modern Apprenticeship is not limited to the individuals’ learning paths. The presence of apprentices in an organisation also has a positive impact on the team around them.

It’s like a domino effect, encouraging learning and development and an interest in new skills for other team members.

A MORE CREATIVE APPROACH TO TALENT ACQUISITION

Apprentices don’t hit the ground running on day one and for some hiring managers that is a mental barrier that they need help to overcome.

For Mike White, apprenticeship manager, early careers, at NatWest Group, it’s about identifying the business benefits for each team. “Apprenticeships need to solve a problem. That might be retention in an area with a high turnover, or succession where there is a limited pipeline of young people in an existing team. You have to identify the levers for the hiring manager to make it work.”

Once that barrier is overcome, resistors can become the biggest converts.

“At the start, we didn’t see the value of apprenticeships,” explains John McGuire, founder and managing director, at Pulsion Technology. “But they worked so well that we actually ended up taking on more apprentices. Having apprenticeships on board has allowed us to split up the work by role. Software developers aren’t always that keen on testing but apprentices see it as great work. This approach has been really successful for us.”

When it comes to recruiting apprentices, hiring managers need to think differently. Clearly selecting based on CVs and interview questions about the last five years’ experience isn’t relevant. But looking for passion and ambition, regardless of the subject, will help organisations identify candidates with potential, energy and team fit.

“Individuals that start at the furthest distance from what we perceive to be the right place are interestingly often the best candidates. It’s about the individual and their motivation. You have to change your selection process to suit that,” says White.

SOUNDING A POSITIVE NOTE FOR THE TECH FUTURE

The Economy Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, said Scotland’s future workforce will be at the heart of rebuilding the economy following the pandemic.

And nowhere is that more true than in digital skills.

The Scottish tech sector continues to thrive with Gross Value Added per head for the tech sector 40 per cent higher than for the economy as a whole and the city of Edinburgh is second only to London as the most active tech community. But its continued success is dependent on the development of new talent.

A short-term focus on readymade talent is not going to solve the digital skills gap. Apprenticeships offer a strategic, long-term solution by building the digital skills every organisation requires but also allow employers to shape a workforce that is fit for them.

The final note of optimism goes to founder of EVO Software Solutions, John Gilhooly. “We have been blown away by the quality of individuals we have met during the selection process. If these candidates are representative of the calibre of Scotland’s Modern Apprenticeships and output of our schools then we are in an extremely good place as a tech nation for the future.”

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