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Getting digital apprenticeships to work by defining a clear career pathway

Written by Damon Rands, CEO of Wolfberry

I spend my days working in Cyber. It is a cutting-edge technology driven industry, forever changing and adapting to attacks from the main threat actors—from Nation states to organised crime. Or is it the same old technology that really hasn’t moved on over the past 30 years?

Well, in reality it’s a bit of both. It is true that new ‘smart’ devices are being released into the world’s digital eco system, on an hourly basis. Each one with its own distinct set of vulnerabilities and interoperability issues, although that is another story for another day. But all this new tech is built on the same technology that we have been using for many years.

Like many of my contemporaries when I was a young lad, I was interested in computers. The emergence of the Commodore c64 and the ZX Spectrum was exciting, as these were the Apple and Samsung of the day. They were built on the same principals and basic technology that is used today in our internet connected world. It was using these devices that I learnt how the technology works. This was reinforced throughout my education to my degree. Since this was a new technology there were no trends to follow, and there was only one technology path that educators could pursue.

Which leads me to today’s education. There appears to be many different approaches to teaching ICT, especially digital security, where each educator is trying to guess what the next big topic or latest trend will be. Unfortunately, focusing on these is misguided—especially in tech, as today’s Facebook will soon become ‘Friends Reunited’,’Myspace’ or even the next ‘Blackberry’. What hasn’t changed is the underpinning technology that drives this industry.

At Wolfberry, we employ both placement students and graduates from different universities across the South East of England and Wales, and without fail they all have the same short comings. They lack the core knowledge required to work in an SME environment, where the client technology is definitely not the latest. It’s mostly legacy systems and they are often faced with technology that has long been wiped from degree course curriculums. But these vulnerable SME systems form part of our country’s supply chain, and it is vital that they are securely managed. It is essential that students are educated to understand the core principals of technology, including the parts that haven’t changed in all these years.

Last October saw the launch of the University of South Wales cyber security academy based in Newport. Its aim is to give students real world projects from real companies, from SMEs to corporates. Understanding that client systems can be non-standard and old, while learning about the impact of risk on an organisation has put the students in a privileged position. They have also learnt the vital importance of soft skills, communication and reporting, two items most students appear to lack at graduation. It has been a pleasure to see the academy students develop over the year.

The example set by the academy is one I hope that digital apprenticeships can follow, allowing industry to influence the curriculum set by education. The introduction of level 2 to level 6 apprenticeships is an exciting prospect for the cyber industry, and should be embraced by my peers. The ability to shape your employee’s education rather than repair it is appealing, as the students can earn while they learn without being saddled with the debt of today’s education. I fear we are currently losing talented students, who either don’t wish to or cannot afford the cost of a degree.

For Digital apprenticeships to work, we must ensure that students have a defined career pathway through the education system. It would be wonderful if an apprentice could begin their education at level 2, and follow a clear defined pathway until they qualify through the scheme at degree level, as I feel that there is a real demand for apprenticeships in the workplace. They will not suit all organisations, but for many they will be the answer to a sustainable workforce in a sector that is currently struggling to meet demand.

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