Interest in the ancient institution of apprenticeships is rising steeply in the UK today across many sectors and professions, not least IT. It's a development reinvigorated by recent government announcements and one which I strongly welcome, and which is surely important to most CIOs.
References to apprentices in English history date back to the 12th century, and 200 years later, in The Cook's Tale, Chaucer describes an apprentice who "could dance so merrily and well that he was called Perkin the Reveller. He was as full of love and the game of love as the hive of sweet honey; happy was the girl that happened to meet him"(!)
Those may not be the precise qualities many employers seek in young talent today, but there are sound and serious reasons why apprenticeships, long neglected, are now taking centre stage in the burning issue of finding young talent.
Recruiters are becoming aware that not all roles need to be filled by graduates. So they are once again looking carefully at school leavers who, for various reasons, choose not to apply for university.
And, as the experience of most employers shows, supply is increasing to meet demand. There are many bright 16-18 year olds whose preferences or circumstances propel them towards the workplace rather than university. With all the changes in education and funding, more young people are interested in alternatives enabling them to earn while they learn.
It's easy to see why IT apprenticeships are important at national level. The UK today is fundamentally a service economy, and one that competes in global markets.
IT is a core part of that economy, and if the country is not to become a technological backwater, we will need a well trained and well educated IT workforce. And that surely means putting all the talent we have as a nation to best use.
A rigid graduates-only policy cuts us off from an immense pool of talent; it slams the door on those young people preferring their education to have a tighter focus on vocational training and practical skills than that generally offered by universities.
One issue is the image held by young people of IT as a career, an image not helped by some television stereotypes. Feedback from schools suggests that IT is losing attractiveness as a career choice for the young.
We need to put across the message that IT offers great prospects to bright, motivated school leavers. We should also stress the all-pervasive nature of IT in today's world, and that IT skills will be a great asset even for those who move out of IT into other departments later on.
But how are CIOs to spread the word about IT among the young? One well-proven way is to get involved in the Work Inspirations programme run by Business in the Community which provides young people with a foretaste of the workplace in a way that is relevant, meaningful and inspiring.
The association of apprenticeships with traditional trades such as plumbing and carpentry could also be an issue for some IT people, but not an insurmountable one.
I am confident that most will find, as we have, that familiarity with the IT apprentice concept breeds respect, not contempt. In Capgemini we have been running apprenticeship programmes, in parallel with our graduate recruitment, for a few years now and the results have exceeded our expectations.
Indeed in 2011 we are significantly expanding the programme in both numbers and geographical spread. We have found that those graduating from the two-year programme are highly motivated and display above-average loyalty, and even though staff turnover is not especially high in IT, this is a factor many CIOs might wish to contemplate.
Based on our experience, I'd like to suggest a few do's and don'ts in running an apprenticeship programme:
- Do encourage (or even require) the apprentices to pursue and gain formal external qualifications, and make sensible day-release provision for that, by forming alliances with local colleges and universities, as we have done.
- Introduce a mentoring or buddying plan, ideally on a one-to-one basis, to ensure that each apprentice gets plenty of individual support — and that you can monitor their progress.
- Ensure they are involved in real-life assignments, not simply learning exercises, from as early as possible in the programme. It's what the apprentices want, and gives them a chance to show they can make a real contribution.
As for the "don'ts", I'd say:
- Do not view apprentices as a cheap short-term fix. They are your future and a significant investment for your business. Give fair pay, and good salary progression.
- Make it clear that in your department there are no graduate v non-graduate class distinctions. The only distinctions are based on how well people do their work.
- Don't procrastinate. If you haven't made a start already, get yourself clued up on IT apprenticeship possibilities without delay, or you will get left behind in the race for young talent.
Apprenticeships are going to be key to the future of UK IT — and to the future careers of many CIOs. Those unsure of how or where to start can log on to some excellent websites on the subject.
And to get started in spreading the word about IT as a career, try the Work Inspirations website.
Christine Hodgson is Chairman of Capgemini UK