Apprenticeships: Narrowing the technical skills gap

By Alexia Pedersen, VP of EMEA at O’Reilly

Unemployment for young people has climbed 13% since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many students seeking work experience and roughly half of students feeling unprepared for employment. Employers, too, are experiencing a crisis of confidence in their pipeline of future talent, not least in the growing tech industry, with more young people than ever in need of a job but lacking confidence in their talents.

The impact of the pandemic appears to have reversed prior years’ decreasing higher education patterns, with reports of a jump in university applications this year. Is this reversal, however, beneficial to employers? Is it an indication of a favourable shift in young people’s views about higher education, or a lack of faith in alternative options? While university applications are increasing, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant influence on apprenticeships which have decreased by nearly half. While they are beginning to return to pre-Covid levels, they are still falling short of the government’s ambitious targets.

Addressing the skills gap

The tech skills deficit is a perpetual issue for UK employers. Despite the boom in technology-driven organisations, companies struggle to hire young employees with the skills needed to slot into roles quickly and confidently. Universities are not equipping graduates to make the leap into work, while apprenticeships lag in popularity, or awareness.

The result is that significant resources are spent by employers upskilling young professionals, who themselves have invested heavily in their education to find that it is not always fit for purpose. This is a problem that has been recognised not only in the technology sector but across industries. Despite a fall in applications to universities from British 18-year-olds in the last decade, many young people are still encouraged to focus on a university degree as the route to a successful career. Skills-based study, such as apprenticeships, continue to lag, even though they are based on work-ready training principles that are so vital for employers.

However, as Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers, recently mentioned, “we hear from many employers that apprentice training routes deliver an increasingly important source of talent.” Similarly, industry group techUK recently warned that despite more of its members now offering apprenticeships, ‘technology innovation is accelerating faster than the pipeline of people available to fill the gaps’.

The pandemic has only accelerated the need for specialised technical talent and on-the-job experience. Apprenticeships can help narrow the technical skills gap either in place of or alongside traditional paths for further education via university and college.

Understanding future skills requirements

The truth is that if employers want young people to arrive prepared and ready to go, they need to play their part in facilitating the journey – well before their new starter arrives on day one. If employers want to close the skills gap, they must take some responsibility for engaging young people well ahead of the time they make their HE decisions.

The pandemic has only amplified this need. As the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) recognises, ‘employability skills have overtaken academic achievements as the most important way to improve young people’s prospects of securing a good job. Key to acquiring those skills is practical insight into the world of work that can be accessed through work experience.’

For example, companies like IBM, A&O and HCL are offering post-A-Level students the opportunity to gain niche technical skills from an early age. IBM has announced a roadmap with more than 170 new academic and industry partnerships to make this a reality.

However, with any such initiative, employers must understand the skills they need to grow and innovate, not just focus on the skills of today but be ready for those of tomorrow. Foresight and understanding of future technologies, trends and capabilities are vital in building a solid talent pipeline. This is not an easy task and requires specialist insight that can provide a holistic view of the organisation’s needs alongside the broader trajectory of the industry and the current and future educational landscape.

Such an approach is evidence of an organisation’s true culture of learning. Not only offering continuous skills-building and development opportunities to employees but also to future talent. Understanding future skills requirements and engaging young people in developing those skills and experiences prior to employment isn’t just a ‘nice to have’. It should be considered a business imperative – a preventative strategy to ensure a lack of skills doesn’t jeopardise future growth and resilience.

Not only that, but it is the right thing to do. Evidence suggests that apprenticeships undertaken by young people are associated with significant benefits for individuals, employers and the wider economy. With the financial cost of continuing higher education, apprenticeships open the doors for an entirely new pool of candidates that may not otherwise meet qualifications for certain technical careers. You can teach skills, but you can’t replace individual experiences — and the more diverse perspectives businesses can acquire, the better.

Early engagement of future apprentices will not only prepare young people for the real world of work but will also highlight the options available to them. Future talent is critical to the UK’s tech industry. Organisations must be willing to invest in the foundation if they wish to gain the benefits of young talent. That means not depending on universities and colleges to do all the legwork, but instead pulling up their sleeves and caring for their future employees.

Author: Editorial Team

Share This Post On