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Boardroom / Workforce

Could the new Digital T Levels be the answer to the IT Skills Gap?

Could these new qualifications be just what your business needs as the economy recovers?

Sue Lovelock is director of professional and technical education at the Department for Education (DfE). She writes for Tech Monitor as part of BCS president Rebecca George’s guest editorship

With everything else that has been going on in 2020, you can be forgiven for missing the launch of the T Levels in September or understanding their significance for your organisation. I want to talk to you about what T Levels are and why they should be firmly on your radar right now.

T Levels are new high-quality courses which follow GCSEs and are equivalent to three A levels. These two-year qualifications are based on the world’s best technical education systems and blend classroom learning with significant workplace experience. The first three T Levels have now launched at selected colleges and schools across England with the remaining 21 rolling out by September 2023.

There are three digital T Levels. The first in Digital Production, Design and Development started in September and those in Digital Business Services, and Digital Support Services launch next September.

T Levels
Sue Lovelock, director of professional and technical education at the Department for Education (DfE).

Why are they needed?

T Levels were designed in response to two key drivers. The first was the urgent call from business to address the digital skills gaps and second was the need to streamline post-16 technical/vocational education, providing clear pathways to employment or further study to help both students and employers understand where qualifications lead.

We all know the digital skills gap exists, and the issues this presents to almost all businesses, whether their primary focus is digital or not. There is already a significant mismatch between supply and demand and that gap looks set to widen as demand for skills continues to outstrip qualified people coming into the market.

The World Economic Forum’s 2018 report suggested that 133 million new roles would emerge globally by 2022 as we hurtle into the fourth industrial revolution – and the pandemic will surely have increased both the speed and scale of this.

There are also issues on the supply side as illustrated by  Deloitte, which reported that just 18% of business leaders believe that school leavers and graduates have the right digital skills and experience.

While it will clearly take more than T Levels to close the skills gap, we do believe they can be an important part of the solution – especially as the economy works to recover.

So, what makes T Levels different?

I think of T Levels as sitting between apprenticeships and A levels, offering students who prefer a mix of classroom study and workplace experience a headstart into their chosen career. Once fully rolled out, T Levels will also support the levelling-up agenda by boosting young people’s employment prospects across the country.

I see three major differences between T Levels and other choices and think they help to explain the genuine excitement felt by employers, education providers and students – in fact, everyone who understands what makes T Levels different.

1. Designed by employers for employers: More than 250 employers worked closely with education experts to specify the course content, so employers like you can be confident that T Levels provide students with the right knowledge and skills. Those involved in the digital T Levels scheme include Fujitsu, Accenture, CGI, Lloyds Banking Group, IBM UK, Cap Gemini, Comptia, FutureCoders, the Army and BCS.

2. Genuine workplace experience: Each student completes an industry placement lasting at least 315 hours, around 45 days, which allows them to put their knowledge and skills into practice on real projects, gain a true insight into the chosen career and, most importantly, become work ready. There is not one fixed model for delivery and placements can take place over a block, day release or a mix and can even be shared between employers.

Industry placements are designed in partnership with local learning providers who provide support throughout the process. To date, more than 15,000 T Level-style industry placements have taken place in readiness for rollout. Employers have recognised the benefits of these for bringing in fresh ideas, upskilling existing employees and tapping into the local talent pool early.

3. Rigorous and recognised qualifications: T Levels provide a high-quality route for young people who know the career they want to pursue but who also want to keep their options open. They cover a broader course content than apprenticeships and have more teaching time than most current vocational courses. Each T Level is equivalent to three A levels and attracts the same UCAS points offering students the opportunity of moving straight into an entry-level skilled role, a higher apprenticeship or continuing to further study including at university.

T Levels, the skills gap and you

While we certainly would not have chosen to launch a brand-new qualification during a global pandemic, we felt that it was important to push ahead. Not only did we not want to disappoint the students who were already signed up, we firmly believe that T Levels really offer business a desperately needed skills lifeline, especially at present.

When asked whether T Levels could really address the skills gap, Tim Chapman of Fujitsu*, who advised on the Digital Support Services T Level, responded, “I believe they certainly represent a huge step towards this. The digital T Levels are all about developing the next generations of STEM leaders and innovators – critical thinkers with the ability to understand and apply data and develop solutions to complex problems.”

However, to realise these benefits we also need you to get involved by offering industry placements – and the need is especially acute in digital. Most will start in the student’s second year, from next September, so it is time to start planning now.

More than 250 learning providers are already arranging industry placements – either for the first three T Levels or linked to other courses in readiness for later ones – and will partner with you to ensure the experience is as valuable for you as it will be for the student. They will work with you to decide how an industry placement could work in your business, to identify the right students, ensure it runs smoothly, complete any necessary paperwork and to answer any questions you have. You can even share the placement with another employer so that businesses of any size can realise the benefits industry placements offer.

I believe that T Levels offer an exciting and innovative way to start bridging the digital skills gap and hope you will make finding out more a priority for your business.

You can find out more about T Levels and industry placements at tlevels.gov.uk.