Jonathan Jackson CITP MBCS is Programme Lead for the Digital & Technology Solutions Professional (BSc) degree apprenticeship programme at Buckinghamshire New University. Here he shares his thoughts on the power of apprenticeships close the UK digital skills gap.

The apprenticeship levy was introduced by UK government in 2017 and is paid into by large employers with a salary bill of over £3 million per year. Employers pay 0.5% of their total annual salary bill into the levy fund and can spend their funds on their own apprenticeship training and assessment costs, or they can transfer them to another employer. If funds are not used, they expire (‘use it or lose it’).

Apprenticeships at all levels

A plethora of apprenticeship standards exist at different levels, aimed at occupations in and around digital. The Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (IfATE) provides occupational maps to help employers identify progression and upskilling routes for new apprentices and existing employees.

Some vocationally focused universities like Buckinghamshire New University (BNU) were early entrants into the higher and degree apprenticeship marketplace and have built significant apprenticeship provision across various industries such as healthcare, policing, engineering, business and management, and of course, digital.

It is not uncommon for employers to recruit apprentices onto an 18-month apprenticeship at Level 3 or 4 and then offer opportunities to up-skill to a full degree-level qualification (Level 6). A lot of the learners I work with complete a Level 4 apprenticeship with other providers before joining BNU to progress to a full Bachelor’s degree within two and a half years instead of the typical four years.

The digital apprenticeship landscape

It is understandable that without trusted partners to work with, some employers might feel overwhelmed by all of the options available. Combine this with conflicting messages around levy underspend and overspend, and it can feel like a minefield. The aim of this article is to make that minefield a little more navigable.

While there are valid concerns over apprenticeship completion rates hovering just above 50%, I urge employers to look at the track record of the providers they are talking to. To illustrate the point, BNU has over a 90% completion rate on our Digital and Technology Solutions Professional (BSc) degree apprenticeship.

Nationally, around 1500 new apprentices start on this programme each year, and around 5000 are on the programme at any one time. It is also worth noting that this single apprenticeship standard has six distinct pathways: Software Engineering, IT Consultancy, Cyber Security, Networking, Data Analysis, and Business Analysis.

Training providers may offer different delivery models such as day release, block delivery, or a combination of both. Providers may also develop bespoke delivery models for single employers if an agreed minimum number of apprentices can be recruited.

But what are the benefits?

Transformational personal development

Degree apprenticeships can transform people’s lives. I have seen learners who dropped out of traditional university subsequently thrive as degree apprentices. The learning environment is different. The work-based context is unique. When done properly, degree apprenticeships are greater than the sum of their parts.

Apprentices themselves can sense this too. They are acutely aware from the start that they are accruing zero debt and by the time they complete their degree they will have several years of valuable work experience already behind them.

It isn’t just school leavers that are benefiting from these programmes. Upskilling helps existing employees grow, regardless of age. Reskilling opens doors for career switchers, a valuable source of talent. I am personally convinced that degree apprenticeships also have a significant part to play in bridging the skills gap between university and industry.

So how can degree apprenticeships, and particularly the apprenticeship levy, be used even more extensively to help reduce the digital skills gap and prepare the next generation of digital technologists to thrive in a sea of emerging technologies?

Navigating the minefield

Apprenticeships are employer driven. Employers need to create the apprentice roles or offer levy-funded training to existing employees. High calibre training providers are an essential piece of the puzzle, but they have less of a direct impact on apprentice numbers.

So how can employers develop an apprenticeship programme? What level apprenticeships and which apprenticeship standards should they offer? Isn’t it just easier to continue hiring graduates? The paperwork for apprenticeships seems like a nightmare. And let’s not get started on Ofsted oversight!

Don’t panic. It may seem like a minefield, but since the apprenticeship levy was introduced, plenty of trailblazing employers (and providers) have led the way on new standards and delivery models. Looking back just five years, the industry has come a long way, particularly with universities now playing such a significant role in successful degree apprenticeship programmes.

Forward thinking employers

Who better to turn to for inspiration than employers who have already developed successful apprenticeship programmes? I want to highlight two contrasting examples of employers I have worked with to demonstrate how there is by no means a one-size-fits-all approach to apprenticeships.

Crimson is an IT company headquartered in the West Midlands which was voted a top 10 apprenticeship employer across all UK SMEs and top for technology apprenticeships in 2022. They utilise an academy model, recruiting predominantly school leavers into Level 4 apprenticeships who are then offered the opportunity to continue onto an IT Consultant degree apprenticeship which takes only two and a half years on top of their Level 4 qualification.

Crimson has a very high ratio of apprentices in their business and commitment to the apprenticeship model is shown from the very top of their leadership team. It simply would not work without that level of commitment to nurturing future talent. It is worth noting that Crimson is not large enough to be a levy paying employer, but they still benefit from the levy through the levy transfer arrangements from other larger employers who are not spending their own levy funds.

Sky, on the other hand, is a much larger levy-paying organisation. Sky has various forward-thinking schemes in place to recruit and develop talent. Yes, they hire graduates — but they also hire apprentices onto Level 4 programmes in a similar way to Crimson. Degree-level progression is now part of their standard offering for apprentice software engineers.

They also have an impactful Get into Tech scheme aimed at encouraging women with little or no previous technical experience to learn some of the skills necessary to begin a career in technology. The scheme aims to address the lack of gender diversity within the IT industry, and its availability as an evening course makes it easier for those still in employment to participate.

Many of those who complete the course are offered roles at Sky. I have been fortunate to work with many individuals who have switched careers through this scheme and progressed onto the degree apprenticeship with BNU as part of a safe, supportive, and inclusive learning community. Several have even been promoted into leadership roles before completing their degree apprenticeship.

Looking ahead

The success experienced by employers and individual learners makes it clear that degree apprenticeships can be a highly effective way to develop talent. It isn’t easy, though. Effort and commitment are required all round.

If you are yet to explore apprenticeships, start small. Contact a variety of training providers and ask a lot of questions. Make use of the apprenticeship levy, regardless of whether you are a levy-paying organisation or not.

Looking back over the last five years, I am thoroughly heartened by the results I am seeing among employers and providers delivering degree apprenticeships in digital specialisms. Lives have been changed and organisations have grown stronger.

What do the next five years look like? If you are an employer, you may just hold the answer to that question.