Investing in tomorrow’s Apprentices

Apprentices having a conversation

Written by Mick Westman, CEO at Digital INnov8ors

Envisioning a ‘future [that] isn’t what it used to be’ (Steve Jobs, 1983). A future shaped by the impacts of societal digital evolution, and the revolution driven by computers that are exponentially better at understanding the world, sees traditional industries being disrupted and the nature and form of next generation jobs changing.

It is argued that Apprenticeships are an increasingly important part of the country’s long-term plan for an improved workforce and enhanced productivity. They have the potential to make an even greater impact in future if trained correctly, but achieving this will require a change in mindset of employers, educators and the third sector.

Today’s learners, those born since 2000, have a very different outlook to previous generations. They are the digitally innate, absorbing the technology, and fluent in social platforms. So, as engagement with tech becomes ever more intuitive, training of this generation needs to be less about the technology and more about its application. No need to be taught how to be digital –  but they need to be trained in digital numeracy and literacy, higher order thinking competencies, and social and emotional skills. It’s time to recognise that lean-back classroom, abstract teaching, does not work for everyone.

An important aspect of the conversation at the Digital Leaders salon was recognising that the term ‘digital’ increasingly crosses all segments of society. As such, digital disruption is a democratising tool – one that should offer new opportunities to those that are inspired and ambitious enabling them to grasp the new employment opportunities.

The problems are compounded by an education system that places a focus on academic achievement above the needs of employers. A system that inadvertently has created two tiers of education outcomes; those that follow prescribed academic pathways to university, and those that don’t.

John Callaghan, Principle Solihull College and University Centre, highlighted that colleges, mindful of the external scrutiny of their financial affairs and quality, often take the safer route; sticking to tried and tested qualifications and delivery models. This often acts as a deterrent to embracing new innovative delivery models which are often impossible to fund alongside an already crowded curriculum delivery system.

Access to digital skills drives transformational development in SMEs; catalysing growth, increasing productivity and preparing the businesses for the 21st Century. In a region leading the way in business start ups, a paucity of digital talent restricts the ability of entrepreneurs and innovators to deliver new products and services, stifling innovation and growth. Today, there is a major digital skills shortage in the workforce which is the major growth-limiting factor in all sectors. With increasing digitisation these skills shortages will become an acute problem.

David Hardman, CEO Innovation Birmingham, described this problem as not so much a paucity of talent, but more a lack of connection to it as a result of a system that develops and recognises learners’ skills rather than talent. For learners to become earners they need to be able to apply their talent to the world of work. All talent needs to be nurtured, even if it does not get recognised through standard educational measurement; this starts from the way in which learners are engaged with the learning processes.

The speakers agreed there is a need for alternative pathways to employment for the less academically orientated talent, who need to be sufficiently inspired and ambitious to grasp employment opportunities.

An inclusive approach that broadens the region’s talent pool is by tapping into a segment of the prospective workforce previously ignored by the tech-led sectors. It has to be shaped to engage those that are hard to reach because they have been disenfranchised by the education system, but are either continuing to struggle within the system, or are now not in employment, education or training (‘NEETS’).

One solution to this is creating a skills talent pipeline of pre-apprentices and engaging them, which Digital INov8ors, in partnership with Solihull College and Innovation Birmingham, are planning to do.

The aim is to spread the opportunities offered by tomorrow’s smart city to the largest possible number of citizens. It will also support a largely ignored source of innovators and entrepreneurs, again, helping drive wider inclusion and hence a richer pool of innovators to drive the economy. 

It plays, at several levels, to the local engineering heritage that drove the ‘work shop of the world’, which has to potential to do so again in this 4th Industrial Revolution.

The current Basic Digital Skills consultation will be enhanced by this thinking.


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