5 things I learnt during National Apprenticeship Week


Written by Robin Knowles, CEO at Digital Leaders

Digital Leaders once again took part in National Apprenticeship Week here in the UK, highlighting the importance of Digital Apprenticeships as a specific sector. Thanks to the support of our partners we held salons and webinars throughout the week, and I got to Chair and listen to some very knowledgeable people talking about this important sector.

It was great to have such cross-sector gatherings and it was particularly pleasing that so many apprentices joined us to give their perspective on the employer/trainee relationship.

All our Salons are held under the Chatham House rule, but I wanted to share five things I heard during the week that were a little surprising at least to me.

1. Digital Apprentices tend to be graduates

This did surprise me because I had assumed most digital apprentices were taking up Apprenticeships after the 6th form and A levels at 18. Throughout the week, many of the examples I heard and the apprentices I met were coming to an Apprenticeship in the Digital Sector after their first degree, and even after a masters course. I did meet some who had not gone to University, the most interesting being an apprentice who had been discovered in a Chip Shop, who was now running a profitable team for a large employer whilst still training, but even they had come to their apprenticeship in their mid-20s.

2. The reported number of unfilled jobs are inflated

I put this one in for balance because the mismatch between over demand and under supply is the thing driving the sector to train more apprentices. A number of recruiters took part in the week and talking to them about the state of the market they all said that the numbers quoted by government did not take into account the way digital roles are recruited. For example, if four businesses are shortlisted for a big contract with say, a bank, then all four will advertise the roles they might need if they were to win. This means the unfilled jobs being advertised are considerably higher than the actual need, in this case by a factor of four. No one I met believed that demand is not a lot higher than supply and the difficulty of recruiting good staff came up all week, but official figures may be overstating the true shortfall.

3. The interview process for Digital Apprentices needs work

I put this one in because of two anecdotes that caught my ear concerning sectoral differences and diversity. I heard a regular reference to the importance of recruiting the right people onto Apprenticeship courses and the feeling was that standard interview processes, traditionally based on “competence”, were not leading to effective shortlisting. In terms of sector there was a feeling that rigid recruitment processes particularly in the public sector were stopping the use of more effective processes currently being used in the private sector, and therefore the public Sector faced more of a lottery as to whether the apprentices they recruit into Digital roles will be able to succeed.

In terms of gender diversity, it was clear from the discussions that once the process of recruitment was developed to include group working and one to one discussions that women scored more highly and were more likely to be recruited. There was however cross sector confirmation that the numbers of women coming forward for selection were very low still. This leads into my next unknown.

4. Pathways into the sector remain unclear

Of my five, this one I had more of an understanding of, but it’s at the heart of the supply of future apprentices into the sector and I picked up some clear remaining challenges. There are two elements to this. Firstly, in terms of “Brand”, there remains an image problem with the term “Apprentice”, and parents’/schools’ opinions of them as a career option remain poor. While as I said above, most Digital Apprenticeships seems to be for graduates, the “bricklaying” and “beauticians” tag seems to blind schools and parents to the opportunities.

Secondly, finding digital apprenticeships through official sites seems to be incredibly difficult, with most apprentices attending our salons reporting they were unable to find what they needed and “stumbled” across their opportunity by chance. So, the digital sector seems ill served by the front door to Apprenticeships and needs to come together and present a case for the sector separately to schools and parents.  There’s a lot of positive news to be heard about a career in the sector.

5. Big companies do Digital Apprentices better that small ones

I finish with a generalisation, which I personally can immediately think of an exception to, but I have to report back from my week that I consistently heard from the “horses mouth” that the small and medium businesses find apprenticeships difficult to get the best out of. Challenges include training mentors and offering a programme that gives high quality on the job training to apprentices. As one participant said, perhaps the best strategy for a small business is to pay a little extra salary and headhunt digital apprentices from bigger businesses once they have completed their training!


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