Digital skills are essential for any organisation seeking to use technology effectively, but many companies struggle to find the skills they need. According to one study for the UK government, British employers experience difficulties finding suitable candidates for one-third of positions due to a lack of digital skills. One solution to this issue is a time-honoured practice: apprenticeships.
Although traditionally associated with manual occupations and young people, apprenticeships are increasingly recognised as a way to upskill workers of all ages in areas including cybersecurity, IT, big data and software engineering, according to the International Labour Organisation.
Apprenticeship schemes typically combine a work placement with part-time study (whether a professional qualification, bachelor’s or master’s degree). In the UK, apprentices spend 80% of their working week in their job placement and 20% studying. They earn a salary and course fees are paid for by their employer and the government.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been using apprenticeships as a way to grow and nurture technology talent for the best part of a decade. At the recent Charity IT Leaders Virtual Festival, the charity’s head of technology services Melissa Werry explained how to get the best out of apprentices, and how they can breathe new life into long-established teams.
RSPB’s apprenticeship story
The RSPB decided to implement its scheme in 2012 as a way to create a pipeline of skilled staff, starting them out on the IT service desk before progressing them onto second-line support or development roles.
This first apprenticeship was offered as part of a business administration and IT apprenticeship course. It covered a wide range of skills, from telephone etiquette to IT service desk call logging. “It was very much aimed at somebody who came straight from school into their first job and who had never worked in an office before,” explains Werry.
An early lesson was finding the right partner to provide apprentices. The first company RSPB worked with proved unreliable but its current provider, Baltic Apprenticeships, has a cultural fit that Werry values.
“I’ve had one apprentice who had a severe case of ADHD. The supplier was amazing with the support that they put in place for that,” she explains. “In terms of diligence and care, particularly when working in the charity sector, where you find people are generally pretty caring, that’s been culturally a really nice fit for us.”
Werry warns against viewing apprentices as free labour, as they typically require a fair amount of time and attention. “Apprentices are people who need nurturing,” she explains. “Apprentices require time from the people who work in your business and you need to spend and invest time in them.”
Apprenticeship schemes typically last between 15 and 20 months, although they can be as long as four years. This is a significant commitment for both the individual and the organisation, so organisations need a clear set of objectives for their apprenticeship scheme.
They should also make sure that suitably qualified people will be available to give the apprentices the help and guidance they need, Werry says.
“You are not going to bring somebody to work on a network or infrastructure engineer role if that’s not something you are going to be able to give them the opportunity to do,” she explains. “You need to make sure that you’ve got experienced staff in place who have the time to spend with the apprentices to get them up to speed.”
It is also crucial that the apprentices have access to mentors, Werry advises. As a senior member of staff with the relevant experience, a mentor can teach the apprentice skills while also coaching them towards their career and personal development. This relationship differs from that of the new starter in that it requires a stronger bond between mentor and mentee and a certain degree of empathy and counsel.
The benefits of running an IT apprenticeship scheme
Although they require time and attention, it is certainly not just the apprentices who benefit from the scheme, Werry contends.
“If you’ve got a team that’s been together for an awfully long time, having somebody new and fresh can be the kick that everybody needs to get enthusiasm levels back up and have people engaged as well,” she says.
When RSPB took on their first apprentice in 2012, the injection of “fresh blood” within a veteran team was immediately felt as a positive move.
The interaction between apprentices and more senior staff can also help the latter realise about their skills and knowledge and take credit for it. “I think most of us don’t give ourselves enough credit on a daily basis. When you have somebody new who’s desperate to learn it makes you realise ‘gosh, actually I do know a lot of stuff’,” says Werry.
This relationship between apprentices and staff, together with the combination of new ideas with the experience from senior employees, has the potential to make organisations flourish and revive teams in ways that traditional recruitment rarely offers.
Digital skills success stories
Werry is particularly proud of RSPB’s apprenticeship success stories. One example is Charlotte Smith, who first joined as a service desk analyst apprentice in June 2015 and is still working for the organisation today.
A school project that involved creating a game prompted Smith to study IT for her A-levels (the UK’s exams for students aged 16 to 18). But instead of going straight to university, she chose the apprenticeship path to build up her experience. During her apprenticeship at RSPB, she secured a permanent role after what Werry describes as a “brilliant interview”.
“Not content with that, Charlotte decided she wanted to move towards a senior analyst role. Over a period of 12 to 18 months we put her into an in-role promotion process and she got the role as a senior in the team,” says Werry with evident pride.
When RSPB restructured at the end of 2019 and the IT and digital departments came together, Smith said that she wanted to progress to a more technical role, which she successfully did. During that time, Baltic Apprenticeships recognised her as Apprentice of the Year.
“It was a huge thing for RSBP and for Charlotte as an individual for all the hard work she did,” Werry says.