Paul Freeman FLPI, Managing Director of GK Apprenticeships - part of Global Knowledge, the world’s largest IT training provider - spoke to Sharon Gaskell, Marketing Manager at BCS.

At this moment, why is it important to promote digital skills and apprenticeships?

Opening the annual Gartner Symposium back in 2013, Peter Sondergaard, Gartner SVP and head of research, said “By 2020, every company will be an IT company and every leader will be a digital leader,” adding "digital is the business; the business is digital."

He was right, digital is the business; the business is digital and on its own in the last 12 months, COVID-19 has accelerated technical advancement by another generation. We are talking about a minimum of a 10-year advancement in terms of digital skills requirements in one year due to the pandemic.

When we talk about digital, we mean the convergence of multiple technology innovations enabled by connectivity: whether that's manifested through big data, AI, blockchain, VR or a combination of them. It's all these that are now being considered and used by organisations to create that competitive edge.

Whilst more organisations are recognising the concept of digital disruption, employers who were not braced for the impact, such as Thomas Cook, Blockbuster and HMV, are being swallowed up by those who have embraced change, such as Airbnb, Netflix and Spotify. The seven core capabilities that the Global Knowledge Annual Skills Survey reveals organisations need to invest in to remain competitive are: Data Science, DevOps, Software Engineering, Cloud, Cyber security, Agile and AI.

Separately to this need for digital skills, it is also important to recognise the changes in the apprenticeship landscape over the last 5 years or so. An apprentice is no longer limited to being early careers, a new employee or for someone who has just left school/college. The implementation of the Apprenticeship Reform Programme (2015) means an apprentice can be any age, be either an incumbent member of staff or a new employee, and can range from Early Careers (level 2) right through to Senior Leader (Level 7).

If we overlay the effect of the apprenticeship levy, and the associated impact of this on training budgets, it makes a very strong business case for apprenticeships to underpin the wider lifelong learning/career development strategy organisations want to put in place.

Despite a double-digit decrease in the number of school children taking IT and computing-related GCSEs. In 2018, the Edge Foundation published research highlighting 600,000 tech job vacancies were costing the UK economy £63 billion a year. As of today there are still significant technical skills gaps in the industry.

So, what’s in it for the company and the apprentice?

At Skillsoft Global Knowledge, we have created an ‘Apprenticeship ROI Calculator’ to determine exactly that. In the calculations, we include: the apprentice's salary; 25% to cover things like pension, NI, employer’s pension contribution; funding from government; funding required from the company. We then ask those thinking of employing an apprentice to put in maybe half a dozen different figures or metrics, for example, pay increase thresholds and % productivity assumptions. Then, based on some relatively simple algorithms, we calculate what the ROI business case looks like for that employer to take on an apprentice.

When you look at how employers can get funding through the levy, or if you're a non-levy payer and only pay 5% of the contribution towards an apprenticeship, from a procurement perspective it becomes an extremely attractive way of being able to deliver skills development within an organisation. It very much ticks the procurement box around commercial benefits, typically seeing a 70% return on saving on commercial training budgets.

The real power is when you look at the pedagogical approach of an apprenticeship. I've been in learning and development for 20 years and spent a lot of time with many Heads of Learning. The challenge is always, how do you turn the cost of a training course into a productivity increase that you can measure through ROI?

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve says that if you go on a five-day training course, you will forget 95% of what you’ve learned in the first 48 hours. However, if you learn more gradually and apply that learning as you go, you have more chance of retaining what you’ve learned; that’s the beauty of an apprenticeship.

Do you think that the government’s incentives for apprenticeships have boosted demand?

Despite some delays over the last 18 months, we have seen the appetite grow overall. The bigger return has certainly been from the SME market: smaller businesses and non-levy payers have been able to commit to starts and employ apprentices a lot quicker than some of the large corporates.

We have done a lot of work recently with levy transfer activity - whether that's through some of the vendors like Microsoft and AWS, or via some of the government schemes, various combined authorities or the London Progression Collaboration (LPC). We've been very active in working with levy payers, encouraging them to undertake levy transfer activities and then working with SME organisations to allow them to facilitate fully funded apprenticeship programmes and to not have to pay the 5%. Using funding from Royal Mail, the BBC, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. has just been a real coup for us in terms of enabling the SME sector to benefit from apprenticeships.

Advising SMEs, particularly on funding, is a constant because the SME market always needs that extra guidance. We've just released a video with a company called Fifth Quadrant, who are a small organisation looking at business analysts, and the classic story of them perceiving that an apprentice must be 16 to 18, or you can't use levy transfer - these are the myths we need to dispel .

When did apprenticeships become a viable alternative to university?

The post-college route changed fundamentally in 2015 when the government redefined apprenticeships. For example, now you can do an apprenticeship at any age - our oldest learner is something like 54. And as long as there are significant skills to transfer, you can do an apprenticeship in any role. Therefore, it’s not just for those early in their careers, you can take a Master's or a PhD as an apprentice - if the apprenticeship has been approved and released.

So, where do you start to put together a programme?

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There is a challenge of how to bring people together with a lifelong learning strategy to provide a career development progression roadmap for individuals. Whether they’re a school leaver, college leaver - even more mature but looking at skills transfer - you can use apprenticeships to create that almost cradle-to-grave development path for them.

We begin with setting clearly defined learning objectives. The programme would be built very much around the employer’s internal process culture, systems and technologies. We'd then:-

  • make sure that line managers were clearly engaged to understand their role within the programme;
  • assess the baseline capabilities, competencies and skills prior to the launch;
  • implement a suite of learning delivery, whether that’s formal for training courses and e-learning, or informal through communities of practice, podcasts, webinars and social learning interventions.

We have coaching and mentoring available to make sure that learners are inspired and guided towards how they’re applying the learning. We encourage learners to build evidence for their portfolio with an overlay of vendor-professional qualifications.

We make sure the knowledge gained is turned into a skill, which is then applied and evidenced through assessment, to make sure that is then an ongoing behavioural change.

And this really demonstrates an uplift in skills and capability?

We have the ability to go to an employer and say, “If you put a learner through an apprenticeship programme, we will guarantee that you have a capability uplift at the end of the programme.” We can do this because we know an apprentice will have an end-point assessment, they will have completed the synoptic project, submitted their portfolio of evidence and attended a structured interview - all of which demonstrates how they have achieved competence and capability from 12, 18, 24 months ago, throughout the programme. The evidence ultimately shows the journey that they've been on and the productivity increase that they are now demonstrating within that organisation.

This is the message we're continuously going out to employers with: how to use a best-in-class approach which is fully funded, or costs very little, aligned to the absolute critical skills that your organisation needs - the only thing you've got to invest is time. Invest in an apprenticeship and you will absolutely see productivity increasing, you will see business transformation and all from your buy-in today.

More about Paul

Paul Freeman is a leader, motivator and thought leader, dedicated to learning transformation and positive change. Seen as a trusted advisor and internal mentor with the ability to deliver against performance targets in very challenging environments, Paul has a proven track record of successfully managing a training delivery portfolio of over £70m per annum with P&L responsibility.

About Skillsoft Global Knowledge

Skillsoft Global Knowledge is an independent IT technical training provider, headquartered in the US with a global turnover of around $330m. Skillsoft is the world's largest digital e-learning provider and have around 45 million learners on a platform accessed by 700 of the Fortune 1000 top organisations in the world. Skillsoft Global Knowledge specialise in IT and have the world's largest market share across vendors such as Microsoft, AWS, Cisco and VMWare. The business is heavily focused on building IT professional capability through apprenticeships and in the UK currently work with circa 250 employers.