7 steps that have led to a successful cross-sector Digital Apprenticeships scheme

Written by Nikki Keane, Deputy Head of IS Personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service

The Northern Ireland Executive number one priority is to have a vibrant economy and key to help achieving this is strengthening the digital talent pipeline within Northern Ireland.

The following easy to follow plan shows how the complementary roles of Government, industry and academia worked in partnership to design, develop and implement an innovative joint public / private sector ICT apprentice programme. The outcome so far – over 170+ ICT jobs created to help ensure a long term, local supply of digital talent.

Step 1 Recognise the opportunity to do something really positive

Step 2 Take action to make an investment in Northern Ireland

Step 3 Utilise local resources to design & deliver a joint programme

Step 4 Get Ministerial Support and spread the word

Step 5 Create local digital career opportunities

Step 6 Deliver an ambitious and comprehensive skills programme

Step 7 Reap the benefits of a world class skilled ICT workforce

This concept was achieved as Digital Leaders in Belfast, recognised they all had one thing in common – ICT skills shortages. By working together everyone recognised there was an opportunity to offer young people an exciting career in ICT and show that the public and private sector can work very effectively together for the betterment of Northern Ireland.

A working group comprising of representatives from both the Private Sector and Public sector was formed to iron out the final details of the scheme with two government departments – Department for the Economy (DfE) and Department of Finance (DoF) (formerly known as DEL and DFP) taking the lead. Key was agreeing a minimum standard of education, testing for aptitude and building in flexibility for specific business needs – the outcome a two stage recruitment process, predominately funded by DfE which meant whether a company had one vacancy or ten, this joint approach resulted in a cost effective, fit for purpose solution for all organisations involved.

3 critical ingredients:
1 Agree a recruitment process which works for all stakeholders.

Our approach:
Minimum entry requirements (5 GCSEs including English and Maths and 1 A Level in any discipline);

Step 1 – Joint Ministerial Support and advertising to coincide with A level results, helped gain maximise exposure with the added benefit of highlighting apprenticeships are an alternative option to the traditional university route to begin a digital career.

Step 2 – Applicants apply online and complete aptitude test
(all managed by independent local company Mindmill who are industry experts in Psychometric Assessments with a track record of working with DfE on other government initiatives such as academies).

Step 3 – Recruit the right candidate for your business. The scheme since its creation in 2012 has attracted over 800 applicants per year. The top 200 are invited to complete a verification test and if successful are then eligible to apply to any/all of the participating companies. With around 30 jobs to choose from each year, the onus is on the applicant to decide who they apply to. Companies also have the flexibility of setting additional criteria if deemed appropriate to their business needs.

2 Agree an employment package which includes attractive terms and conditions with clear development pathways to ICT careers.

The take up of apprentices in the public sector has traditionally been low regardless of the profession across the UK, however the approach taken by the Northern Ireland Civil Service ICT Profession was to utilise existing government pay grades and career development policies which complimented existing ICT recruitment methods. This lead to discussions on whether a set salary for all apprentices regardless of the employing organisation could be agreed, whilst this wasn’t to be the case, it set the standard for ensuring the ICT apprentice route is regarded as a viable, sustainable alternative to the traditional employment of graduates.

3 Deliver a strategy to enhance the quality of the ICT skills supply.

Digital Leaders in Belfast agreed in order to support the growth and expansion of the ICT sector, two career streams were required: Software Development and IT Infrastructure. Via a local education provider contracted by DfE to deliver apprenticeship training, Belfast Metropolitan College delivered the level 3 work-based training programmes that lead to nationally recognised qualifications.

The scheme is now established as an annual joint public / private sector recruitment with new companies joining each year. It has also evolved and now offers apprentices as well as existing employees the opportunity for further development via higher level apprenticeships in Computing Infrastructure and Software Engineering, validated by the University of Ulster with onward progression to a full degree.

ICT is fundamentally an enabler of solutions, we have a model which has helped delivered cost effective skills solutions to the NI Digital Sector. The challenge remains, as a rapidly evolving sector with new occupations emerging how can we all work together to ensure a digital pipeline for the future.

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