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Leadership / Workforce

Could virtual apprenticeships help tackle the digital skills gap?

Apprenticeships are seen as a solution to ICT skills shortages but uptake is limited. Could virtual apprenticeships boost participation?

Although often associated with traditional trades, apprenticeships are increasingly seen as a solution to the UK’s widening digital skills gap. The UK’s 2017 digital strategy included a commitment to work with employers and education providers to develop new ‘digital apprenticeship’ schemes to ensure candidates can quickly build the advanced digital skills that employers crave.

virtual apprenticeships
Virtual apprenticeships could help people outside major cities gain experience with digital technology. (Photo by Piyaset/Shutterstock)

So far, however, uptake is limited and stagnant. Research by the Learning and Work Institute found that 18,200 people took ICT-related apprenticeships in 2019/2020, less than 6% of all apprenticeships taken and down from 18,500 in 2017/2018. And, as in so many facets of tech skills development, women are underrepresented, accounting for less than a quarter of ICT apprenticeships.

In the UK, apprentices typically spend 20% of their working hours studying at a learning institution and the rest of their apprenticeship time getting hands-on experience in the workplace. But last year, many digital skills apprenticeships were forced online. The experience showed that, for ICT-related skills at least, apprenticeships can be carried out remotely.

Could ‘virtual apprenticeships’ improve the uptake and inclusivity of ICT-related schemes? To find out, Tech Monitor spoke to two people who underwent apprenticeships during lockdown, and tech leaders who oversaw ‘virtual apprenticeship’ schemes.

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From Zoom fatigue to smooth learning

Kristine Petersen and Jack Lewis started their data fellowship apprenticeship at bone marrow register charity Anthony Nolan in person in December 2019. They only had one session before the pandemic hit, after which all their sessions were moved online. Luckily, the nature of the work lends itself to online learning, says Lewis. “We were looking at different coding languages and tools and data analysis, which was easy to adapt to online delivery because they could obviously demonstrate that via Zoom.”

The switch to the online format was not easy though. During the first week, Peterson and Lewis had daily Zoom sessions from 9am to 5pm. “I was terrified,” laughs Petersen. The instructors soon realised that this was too much. “At the end of the day, the coach could hardly speak, he was absolutely exhausted,” says Lewis. After that first week, the instructors switched to half-day training to make the content easier to digest and to avoid burnout.

Although it took him a while to adapt to the virtual experience, Lewis says that it worked out well in the end. The online format had some advantages, including saving time and money on travel since he is based outside London, where the apprenticeships would have otherwise taken place.

This suggests virtual apprenticeships could diminish the geographical bias in access to experience with certain kinds of technology. According to Multiverse, a start-up that provides apprenticeships for digital careers, 32% of their apprentices before the pandemic were based outside London – a figure that has now grown to 49%.

Petersen agrees that the overall experience of the virtual apprenticeship was positive and was made possible thanks to the technology available, which allowed her and her colleagues to attend the sessions smoothly and communicate efficiently. Doing the exams at the end of the scheme from the comfort of her home was something that she also enjoyed as it soothed the exam anxiety.

“In the future, I think you will see more of this because it actually means that people from around the world can do an apprenticeship, in theory, at the same time,” she says. “It doesn’t matter where you are.”

The pitfalls of virtual apprenticeships

But an important pitfall for both Petersen and Lewis is the lack of networking and knowledge sharing between candidates. Asking questions to the coach was also harder as it did not come as naturally as when in the classroom. It can also feel intimidating to stop the class to ask questions. Missing out on small social cues, such as eye contact or body language, also made team bonding more difficult.

“It’s that whole interaction where you have that bit at the start when you do small talk… That’s quite difficult to do when there are 40 people on a Zoom call,” says Petersen. “You have to find ways of compensating for that when you’re doing a virtual learning event.”

Although the trainers tried to make up for the missing coffee chats, Petersen admits that it just is not the same and it will never work as well online as it does in real life – “something that we just all have to get used to”.

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) also delivered its business analyst apprenticeships online as a result of the pandemic. And like with Petersen and Lewis, the main challenges the charity encountered relate to networking, socialising and building rapport among colleagues, says Jason Warner, lead business analyst at CRUK.

“[We] had to respond quite quickly (and not fully set up to deliver apprenticeships remotely) but have taken a number of lessons learned forward,” Warner explains. “We value the face-to-face environment and exposure as much as online/remote so I would favour a hybrid approach where apprentices can experience both methods of working.”

Warner adds that as long as virtual apprenticeships are aligned to an organisation’s ways of working, they are completely viable. In the case of CRUK, the charity has developed its flexible working policy in response to the pandemic, which has benefited apprentices.

Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at Anthony Nolan, agrees that certain aspects of the apprenticeship will always work best in person, especially group collaboration. Other sessions, such as one-to-one interaction, are suitable to continue online.

Based on their experience, Petersen and Lewis think the best format for this kind of apprenticeships in the future will be a hybrid one, where most of the learning and training happens online but there are also days where apprentices go to the workplace. However, Petersen adds that given the choice of only online or in-person training, she would choose the second option.

An opportunity to bridge accessibility barriers

Virtual apprenticeships and other training programmes can also play an important role in bringing down accessibility barriers. Laura Dawson, CIO at LSE, has been collaborating with Astriid, a charity working with people with chronic illnesses and who want to pursue volunteering or employment and at the same time bridge the UK skills crisis, to that end.

Like most organisations in the UK, the LSE has struggled to recruit cybersecurity talent and has been training staff as recruiting top cybersecurity professionals is out of their budget. This is when Dawson offered a trainee called Rory an internship to learn cybersecurity investigations. Rory’s disability meant that he could not travel to the place of work, so a virtual format allowed him to pursue this programme.

After completing his internship, the LSE trained and recruited Rory for a paid part-time role (his disability prevents him from working full-time), where he has developed his skills as a cybersecurity professional.

“We’ve had hands-on training, so we’ve had people working with him on particular cases, but we’ve also used online training platforms such as Udemy. But mostly it has been the old-fashioned setting of doing it in a call like this [Teams].”

Virtual apprenticeships are a valuable opportunity to overcome certain obstacles faced by many who otherwise would not be able to opt for this kind of work, including geographical or accessibility barriers. However, a hybrid approach that combines the best of both real and digital worlds seems to be the most favoured. Moving forward, CIOs and other IT leaders will have to consider the varying needs of different apprentices and apply the lessons learnt during the pandemic.

Cristina Lago

Associate editor

Cristina Lago is associate editor of Tech Monitor.