Are apprenticeships the answer to plugging the digital skills gap?

Are apprenticeships the answer to plugging the digital skills gap?

It won't take me to inform you that we are navigating uncertain waters. Stock markets have crashed, businesses are shutting their doors unsure of when they will reopen, and the education system has been turned on its head, with scholars, students and apprentices all missing out on key training and testing. 

The initiatives and funding packages announced by the Chancellor in response to the pandemic are critical in saving the UK’s economy and ensuring its productivity in the short term. The longer term impact, however, has yet to be understood.

The prospect of hitting any future proposed productivity targets seems very unlikely (such as the announcement by the Chancellor in his March budget that, with investment, the UK was on course to increase productivity by 2.5% in the fiscal year to April 2021). Obviously the coronavirus pandemic has meant a rewrite of the government’s targets. 

Future economic success

Pre-corona, the UK’s digital sector accounted for 7.7% of the economy and produced more than £400 million a day.

Despite this there was a severe lack of digital skills in the country, with 9 out of 10 organisations admitting they were facing a skills shortage

At present, we see the digital sector remains at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 - from providing invaluable support to the NHS to keeping a large number of businesses running completely remotely.

The highly publicized COVID-19 tracing app, which uses Bluetooth technology to trace anyone a potential carrier has been in contact with, is currently in trial on the Isle of Man and due to be rolled out more widely in the near future. 

This sector has increasingly demonstrated its importance for the future of the economy. It is crucial that there is ongoing investment into digital skills to ensure the digital industry can continue to run and innovate efficiently. 

Those who argue that “now is not the time to invest in the digital education of the workforce” need to consider that the long-term ramifications of this crisis could be even worse than what’s happening in the present. We are facing a global recession so it will pay dividends to think about the future when implementing policy at this time rather than being purely reactive. 

In order for a country to be productive the workforce needs to have the skills to generate this productivity, and in the current era the skills we need are digital, namely cybersecurity, IT and cloud skills.

When this pandemic is controlled and we return to a normality, it will be a time for great celebration but in a few years we may find ourselves in dire straits. This is when the lack of funding provided to tackle the skills gap, worsened by the hit to the education system, will come to light. 

The value of apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are an undervalued route into the workplace. When hiring, many companies continue to favour other training methods and a University degree - a mindset that needs to quickly change if the UK is to see any closing of the skills gap and an increase in productivity. 

If people were to recognise apprenticeships for the value that they can bring to both organisations and the economy at large, we perhaps would not be faced with such a skills crisis and an apparent disregard for funding for these other routes into the workplace. 

Digital apprenticeships in particular, bring a huge return on investment for businesses. Upskilling an existing employee via this training is an immense saving on costs when compared to hiring a new team member to fill an internal skills gap. If implementing an apprenticeship scheme the business sits itself in a better position to have a steady flow of skilled employees entering the company, resulting in a more efficient and productive workforce.

And if a business has the time and resource to incorporate a graduate scheme and hire interns then they have no argument against not also having an apprenticeship scheme. 

Long-term solutions

Apprenticeships can therefore be a long-term solution to plugging the digital skills gap and reviving the UK economy, especially if the onus is put on the skills which are in desperate need such as cybersecurity, IT, manufacturing and STEM - but this is only if provided with the correct funding.

Not only do apprenticeships provide new skills to a generation of people entering the workplace, they can also be used to upskill the existing workforce. Apprenticeship training is continuously updated to ensure that those undertaking the courses are armed with the correct skills needed to hit the ground running in the businesses they graduate into.

This, coupled with the fact that apprenticeships take half the time of university degrees, is what makes them so vital in the fight against the lack of digital skills in the country. 

Also, in contrast to other types of training, is the real life experience that apprentices gain. Each apprenticeship requires time spent in a business which ensures the apprentice has the opportunity to use the skills they have learnt - knowledge has no value unless it can be put into practice. As the lockdown eases, this on-the-job training means that apprentices can help boost business and economic growth before they have even qualified. 

The government’s apprenticeship levy, which makes employers with a revenue of over £3 million put aside 0.5% for apprentice training, can assist businesses looking for support.

Aside from more funding from the government to bolster the levy, which at the moment leaves many smaller organisations with little cash to invest into apprenticeship training, we also need to see more collaboration in the industry. Employers, training organisations, lobbying groups and the government must come together to work with the levy and other existing resources to solve pressing issues such as the digital skills gap and unemployment.

It is only through such collaboration that we will truly arm a workforce for the future, ready to deal with whatever the world throws at us next. COVID-19 may be the current reason for the country’s economic downturn but a lack of skills will ensure that it will be a long time before we see any growth unless we begin to look forward.

Find Ben Hansford on LinkedIn here.

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