The digital skills gap is costing billions each year in potential GDP gains and according to the UK Digital Strategy released this year, building a pipeline of tech skills is key to unlocking the opportunities for economic growth, writes BCS Director of Apprenticeships Annette Allmark.

Apprenticeships, where individuals are employed and learn mainly on the job, are now well known for their effectiveness in recruiting, skilling and retaining staff – they’ve been recognised by thousands of employers across the UK. However, what more can be done to get the most out of apprenticeships to help employers and those in the IT and digital profession to prosper?

For some employers the very first step is understanding their existing technical capabilities and where the gaps are. They also need to think about how that may change, or even transform, as their business develops. This sounds relatively simple, but to get the best from apprenticeships requires some considered upfront planning and horizon scanning. Do this and an organisation can be more confident that it has skills for today and a pipeline of talent that will be relevant to its developing business needs.

Tools for the job

Using a tool like RoleModelplus to map skills can help organisations analyse their digital skills and identify what gaps it needs to plug. Taking this first step helps employers plan for, and embed, apprenticeships within their organisation in a meaningful way so that they can play an effective part in delivering their talent strategies.

Another important step before embarking on investing in apprenticeships, is for organisations to take a good look at what’s available – and that goes for individuals intending to start an apprenticeship too. Even employers who have experience of digital apprenticeships may be pleasantly surprised to see the vast selection of new apprenticeships available. In 2022, we saw several refreshed and updated digital apprenticeships go live, including:

The opportunities don’t stop there – Data Technician; DevOps Engineer; Artificial Intelligence (AI) Data Specialist; IT Solutions Technician and Digital Support Technician apprenticeships have all been recently introduced and are gaining momentum.

The growing range of apprenticeships is not surprising, considering the evolution of digital occupations. The most recent additions include:

Apprenticeships already underway include:

  • Digital Product Manager
  • Digital Learning Designer
  • Digital Forensic Technician.

There are also apprenticeships for affiliated technical roles including:

  • Digital Marketer
  • Digital Community Manager
  • IT Technical Sales.

Finally, if you haven’t already heard, apprenticeship degrees are also available in IT disciplines and becoming an excellent choice for employers alongside other graduate programmes. The appeal of achieving a degree and at the same time progressing in the workplace is also a big appeal to many young people; plus they don’t build up a debt before graduating.

Getting to the goal

A new and exciting world of apprenticeships awaits both organisations and individuals, with excellent potential to make a huge and very positive impact on closing the digital skills gap. However, there are some challenges. The apprenticeship attrition rate across all professions and sectors must be improved – that’s the number of people who don’t reach their final assessment to complete an apprentice having started one. This rate is currently running around 50 per cent across all apprenticeships – but digital apprenticeships are bucking the trend, with more apprentices completing, more in line with the government’s target of 67% However, we can do better and a combined effort can help many more who start an apprenticeship to not only have a positive journey, but complete what they set out to do.

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By employers taking a more planned approach, working closely with those supporting their training (a private training provider, college or university) it’s more likely that apprentices will be prepared, enthused and confident to head towards their assessment and complete the apprenticeship. It’s also critical for apprentices to be ready for the end-point assessment which confirms that they are occupationally competent.

Improving diversity through apprenticeships

So, attrition is challenge number one. The second challenge is diversity. We have heard before about the gender divide in the digital profession. That continues to ring true for tech related digital apprenticeships with females representing under a quarter of people starting them. What we are talking about here though is a much bigger opportunity to attract the thriving diverse digital workforce that our economy so desperately needs. Where does that start? Most would say school, or even earlier, so more needs to be to promote that IT is not ‘just IT’ reserved for a chosen few who excel at maths.

Showcasing the array of digital occupations and careers open to young people, breaking down stereotypical images of those who take an apprenticeship route, let alone an IT one, and celebrating apprenticeship successes is essential. To do exactly that, this year BCS launched the BCS Digital Apprenticeship Awards. It was with entries from a wide range of inspiring individuals that had taken a variety of different paths towards a digital apprenticeship, and talked about the positive impact on their careers and the value they were giving to their employers.

Moving on from challenges to opportunities. It’s incredibly encouraging to see more opportunities for people to progress into the workplace and onto IT and digital careers. A key example is via a Digital T-Level, the qualification introduced for students aged 16 to 19 in England as a technical alternative to GCSEs.

Future challenges

T-Levels are equivalent to three A-levels and help young people develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes to thrive in the workplace, and include a meaningful period of work placement. BCS can vouch for the qualification, having had two very enthusiastic T-Level students – Jack and Felix – doing their placement with us for the past year. In addition to T-Levels, the government’s Digital Boot Camps, initiated as a result of the COVID pandemic, have gone from strength to strength and again help boost the pipeline of people moving into IT and digital roles and apprenticeships.

The final point is both a challenge and an opportunity. While there were not many positives about the COVID pandemic, one of the outcomes was the acceleration of tech, which has resulted in the immense demand for IT and digital skills. This means that more organisations, across more sectors than ever before, have IT and digital roles and opportunities on offer. Whether it’s the health sector; retail; finance; or something more scientific – they all need people with digital skills. The challenge is the impact on the employment market; while it means it's in a fantastically strong position, it is having an impact on the number of people available to train and assess people to ensure they have the right digital skills. Now back to the opportunity, there’s lots of ways experienced IT and digital professionals can help – that maybe you now reading this article – for example could you take a day a month to assess a digital apprentice; or maybe link with a training provider to support their training?

There’s never been such an exciting time to be involved in apprenticeships, but there’s also never been such an important time for apprenticeships to work for our economy. If you are reading this and are already a part of this amazing programme, please keep doing what you are doing, and if possible do more. If you are not, then there are numerous ways of getting involved...so please take time to look at the links in this article – and go for it!