Graham Hunter, VP Skills Certifications, EMEA, CompTIA, highlights the benefits of digital apprenticeships and why organisations offering the schemes should be benchmarked against industry standards to ensure the success of apprenticeships
It’s true that all businesses today are, or must become, technology businesses. Time and time again, corporate behemoths and government entities who once had a clear (albeit analogue) identity are evolving their product and delivery to meet the needs of an increasingly tech-hungry world where consumer choice is king. This is as true for major publishing companies like Pearson as it is for supermarket chains like Sainsbury’s. The truth is, though, that there’s an ugly side to evolving technology that threatens to overturn the whole thing and halt digital progress in its tracks across the private and public sectors: the skills gap that exists within our workplaces and the infrastructure risk it carries with it. “Critical Information Infrastructure Breakdown” is, in fact, cited by World Economic Forum as one of the world’s major threats today. For the UK, with the prospect of Brexit still looming, we absolutely must have our house in order.
There are few greater threats to the UK’s economic development, I believe that a technology sector made up of teams that aren’t equipped to adapt and don’t have the skills required to make the shift to digital a reality. While the appetite for tech and innovation is absolutely booming, too many workers aren’t yet prepared for the challenge. Business leaders boldly espouse the virtues of evolving technology and innovation often creates a dangerous chasm between vision and reality. Research from Kyocera, for example, shows that while 9 out of 10 businesses are considering automating more processes in the next year, 16% admit to an inability to locate their own content and data.
If you work in tech, you’ve likely heard this statistic before, but it’s worth saying again that three in five business leaders think the skills gap has actually worsened in the last year. That means that if you work in or anywhere near tech, you’ve not only heard that stat, but you likely know it to be true in your own workplace and have felt the skills gap firsthand. You need more highly skilled workers, but you find it more difficult than before to find them.
This is, in my view, as so many urgent problems are, not a question of potential (which we know is there), but of education and industry working together to define what “better” looks like. And rarely has there been such potential for cross-sector, governmental and institutional collaboration than through the employer-led apprenticeship.
As questions loom about the future of higher education in the UK, apprenticeships still provide a credible alternative for learning, and frankly, earning. They are a proven and viable pathway to gainful employment across IT and all areas, and they promote upward social mobility. Crucially, apprenticeships are powerful enablers of gender equality in fields where women have historically been underrepresented (the number of women starting apprenticeships was higher than men every year between 2010 and 2017). And on an individual level, they allow workers to gain precious on-the-job knowledge, which simply can’t be gained in a theoretical or classroom context. Apprenticeships give people options and hope at a time when it’s reported that fewer than two-thirds of UK employees are satisfied with their jobs.
If we are going to progress as a tech economy, we in the UK are in urgent need of a tech reset…a deep collective inhale while we sort out our priorities, with the help of educational institutions, government and industry, with an eye to strengthening our infrastructure. Apprenticeships have perhaps never been more important as a vehicle for that kind of reset, and as a means, for all parties to back a shared set of standards. Without those rigorous, relevant industry standards, though, apprenticeships do very little good.
The outcome of the Statutory Review for the Digital Apprenticeships will see significant updates to further education programmes. One aspect of this review that gives me pause is the process to remove industry certifications from all apprenticeship standards. In doing so, we risk making it difficult to benchmark our apprenticeships at an international level, but we also risk restricting the breadth of qualifications an apprentice can receive, and ultimately hindering their earning power by restricting them to lower-calibre roles.
For apprenticeships to work, I encourage the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) to allow employers to include certifications or enable them to be funded via the Apprenticeship Levy. We need vendor-neutral certifications and training that is relevant and useful to a wide array of employers. In this way, apprenticeships can help to fortify businesses against technological upheaval and strengthen our economic output.
Our IT sector is responsible for moving UK businesses into the much-heralded Industry 4.0, and it’s crucial that we continue to support them at this time. In IT, certifications have been used for over 30 years to benchmark and develop talent. The IfATE should recognise that this highly skilled sector urgently needs the backing, funding and tools to let them keep doing what they have been doing. Let’s allow employers, former apprentices and those actually doing these jobs to have their voices heard, while also ensuring that we don’t make heavy-handed changes that will dramatically hinder the apprenticeship landscape.
It is vital that we continue to enable IT, professionals, to not only do this transformative work but that we also allow them to be adequately credentialed and recognised members of any organisation. Our national competitiveness and reputation as a global force for innovation depend on it.
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