BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, along with Microsoft were proud partners of QA's first Tech Community Gathering held during National Apprenticeship Week. The training provider invited employers and other stakeholders to celebrate the importance of digital apprenticeships to diversity and inclusion and closing the digital skills gap. Claire Penketh reports.

There was a definite buzz in the air as delegates from government departments through to high street banks and social enterprises gathered in London at the networking event organised by the training provider, QA.

As the guests mingled, there was talk of the shortage of skilled IT workers and the importance of training both those new to tech and developing the digital skills of those already in their jobs.

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Digital divide

As a training provider specialising in technology, QA is passionate about bridging the skills gap. In 2022, it delivered courses to over 3,500 organisations and upskilled almost half a million people. In the past ten years, it’s delivered more than 40,000 apprenticeship starts.

The scope of the training QA delivers is wide – from agile, cyber security, cloud, and DevOps to many other technology specialisms. Plus, it works with learners across the board, from apprentices fresh to the world of work to firms investing in upskilling or reskilling existing employees.

Anita Ibrahim, QA’s Director of Social Impact and Diversity, spoke about her own career journey to those gathered: "I became an apprentice two years ago, with no A levels, no degree to my name, and I was able to use my experience in the school of life to get straight onto a Level 7 Senior Leader MSc programme. Opportunities like this will change the future make-up of leadership teams."

Empowering learners

How an apprenticeship can be empowering was a theme reiterated by Annette Allmark, BCS Director of Learning and Development, who said: "The time will soon come when today's apprentices are our future leaders. They recognise apprenticeships as a career path that is an acceptable route to success, alongside the academic route.

"Look at all the amazing things that have happened to the people who've done an apprenticeship. How many times have we have all worked with apprentices who say that their training has changed their lives?"

Annette said BCS is soon to hit 20,000 apprenticeship end-point-assessments, a massive growth over the last four years, reflecting the increasing demand for competent IT practitioners across all sectors of the economy and a growing appreciation of apprenticeships.

Tech for all

Diversity and inclusion were at the heart of the event. QA presented NatWest Group with an award for its Social Mobility Apprenticeship Programme. Nazma Ghafoor, Early Career Apprenticeships Manager at NatWest Group, and Debbie Barlow, Employment and Opportunities Director for the charity Leadership Through Sport and Business Association, worked jointly on the programme. They accepted the accolade from QA’s Chief Technology Officer Katie Nykanen.

Nazma and Debbie outlined the challenges and considerable achievements of the programme, which went live just as the pandemic began to bite. Undeterred by lockdowns, the programme hired 400 apprentices between 2019 and 2022, many of whom are from low-socio economic communities.

Nazma said: “What we do with our Social Mobility Apprenticeship programme is to give opportunities to those young people who may not always have had the chance to do a job in a bank. Now they can have careers in the future skills space, in digital data and IT, as well as customer and financial services.

“I think diversity is important, full stop, and we need to get more young people into different types of job roles. We need people represented in the workforce from different communities. We’ve got quite a bit of work to do, in terms of employers in general.

“This event is all about diversity, equality and inclusivity, and that is important as we continue to help people, families and communities thrive.

She added that celebrating apprenticeships is more than just an annual, one-week event: "National Apprenticeship Week should be every week, every day."

Changing lives

Microsoft’s Becky King, UK Apprentice Lead, said: "The event was amazing. I've just come away with a renewed sense of energy, a real feeling of partnership, and that we're all pointing towards the same thing.

"This is really about us as a sector coming together to change more lives for more people with apprenticeships. Digital apprenticeships are the key to unlocking productivity. When I think about economic growth and the opportunities that UK plc has, everything points back to making sure that we've got a digitally skilled workforce and are developing high-level technical skills.

"That journey to productivity is definitely going to be in lockstep with digital apprenticeships."

Bridging the skills gap

The stark reality is that the number of skilled, ethical professionals working in tech needs to catch up to with the demand. There is also the pressing issue of the lack of diversity. Women in tech are a minority, with some improvement over recent years, up from 17% to 23% cent of the workforce.

QA is currently planning a series of Tech Community Gatherings to run across the year focussed on diversity, apprenticeships and how we can all work together to sustainably close the digital skills gap.

Annette cited the recent BCS Diversity Report, in partnership with Coding Black Females, which found that in the UK just 0.7% of black women work in the IT industry, compared to 1.8% across the UK's entire workforce.

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Over-fifties are also under-represented, with BCS analysis of ONS figures finding only 22% of those working in information technology are aged 50 or above.

However, QA says its research shows there are also signs of hope, and apprenticeships can reshape the makeup of the tech workforce from a diversity point of view. QA data from 2010 to 2022 shows its female starts have more than doubled in that period, from 12% to 27% - higher than the current national average for women and girls in tech. Meanwhile, over the same period, those aged 35 plus starting apprenticeships has increased exponentially from 0.1% to 21%, and ethnic minority starts are up from 20% to 27%.

Developing talent

The key to expanding the talent pipeline lies in making a tech career as accessible and inclusive said Becky: "It's a no-brainer. Why would you not do it? One of the sessions today summed it up for me. The products we build, and the experiences we build, can't be created by one type of person.

"It comes back to the Microsoft mission for me that empowers every person to achieve more. We must ensure we create economic growth and opportunities by attracting as many different people as possible from all our communities.

"That's where you're going to get the talent, the best products, leadership, and thoughts about what does and doesn't work."