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Can degree apprenticeships plug the tech skills gap?

The skills shortage in the technology sector is acute and growing. New training options could enable more people to choose tech careers – and bring more diversity to the sector.

For employers and for the UK as a whole, the stakes are high. In the area of cyber security, for example, Lloyd’s of London’s 2017 report 'Closing the gap – insuring your business against evolving cyber threats’ estimates that a serious cyber attack could cost the UK economy £92bn. That’s a compelling reason to step up the search for appropriately skilled cyber security workers.

What’s more, most of the UK’s current cyber security specialists are aged over 45 and skilled replacements must be ready to step into their shoes when they start to leave the jobs market.

Broadening the talent pool

Traditionally, our universities and colleges have been the obvious place to look for recruits. A full-time university or college degree has been the clearest route into a technology career and that won’t change.

But what about the people who don’t want to spend three years in an academic environment or who would find it hard for personal or practical reasons? What about people who have a stereotypical image of what a tech-whizz looks like and think they don't fit the mould?

It’s up to employers and educators to cast their nets wider and devise new ways to reach and train raw talent.

That’s one reason why at Jisc we’ve signed up to the Tech Talent Charter (TTC). It’s a government-supported employer initiative to improve diversity and address gender imbalance issues in technology, which we experience at our cyber security centre in Harwell.

By signing the charter we are taking steps to bring more women into technology roles.

We have formally committed to following inclusive recruitment processes and to implementing policies and practices that support the development and retention of a diverse workforce. The new National College of Cyber Security is also intended to provide a new route into specialised tech careers when it opens – probably late next year. Based at the famous second world war code breaking site Bletchley Park, it will select talented, logic-minded 16-19 year olds from across the UK and train them as cyber security specialists.

Degree apprenticeships

And then there are degree apprenticeships.

Many large businesses are using them already to grow their own talent. IBM, John Lewis, PwC, motor manufacturers and several high street banks have all taken the leap. Evan Davis looked at degree apprenticeships recently in his Radio 4 business programme The Bottom Line.

The employers he interviewed said that their degree apprenticeship programmes offer them a wider choice of recruits and are bringing them very ambitious, driven youngsters. They also said that retention rates for degree apprentices seem to be high. Crucially, these employers are enjoying a faster return on investment. Their apprentices contribute to real projects almost from day one.

All these employers (as well as your organisation, if its pay bill is more than £3m per year) are already paying the apprenticeship levy. It is 0.5% of the total wage bill. The levy is part of the government’s programme to get 3m apprenticeship starts by 2020.

The good news is that, if you are paying the levy, you can receive levy funds to spend on training apprentices. For every £1 you pay, you get back £1.10 to spend on training – another powerful reason why it could be time for you to look closely at degree apprenticeships.

Meet Nicole

Nicole Stewart is Jisc’s security degree apprentice. Nicole joined our security team last October as a trainee cyber security analyst and she's already working on a variety of projects including testing for endpoint security solutions and the ongoing development of our DDoS mitigation services.

Nicole said:

"I'm getting lots of practical experience to back up the theory. I get a new module from my learning provider QA every week and attend a workshop in London with them every five weeks. But for the rest of the time I'm working at Jisc.

"My mentors and colleagues are working right alongside me so I can ask for input and then apply what they've told me straight away. The knowledge and techniques stick with you when you're using them on a daily basis."

Nicole is working towards her bachelor's degree. She is earning a salary and will emerge from her apprenticeship well equipped for a career in cyber security - and without any student debt.

Data-driven apprenticeship delivery

We’re developing a solution that will enable our members to use student data to optimise the learning experiences of apprentices at all levels (and in all industry sectors) – and to help apprentices achieve the outcomes that they and their employers want.

Our digital apprenticeships project is building a system to track, monitor and report on each learner’s progress so that employers, providers and the apprentices themselves have an accurate idea of what’s really happening. It’ll provide insights so that it’s possible to make timely interventions or tailor a more personalised learning experience.

It uses the same key infrastructure as our learning analytics service.

We will extend the learning analytics service’s learning data hub so that it can gather in data on attendance, topic coverage and progress as well as information from organisational systems such as student records and the virtual learning environment (VLE). We’ll provide advice and guidance on how to structure data for the hub so that it’s suitable for analysis.

We’ll also provide advice and guidance on the ethical issues around gathering and using personal data and on embedding digital into the apprenticeship journey. And we will develop analytics algorithms so that you have the tools you need when you’re ready to use them.

Interested in our digital apprenticeship work?

Join our community of interest to find out more.