I last wrote about IT apprenticeships, and their growing importance in widening the pool of IT talent and addressing skills shortages, in this column in April 2011.

In the 17 months since then, we have seen more action, more initiatives and more interest in the concept than over the whole of the previous decade.

And those developments are likely to be of interest to any CIO planning the future staffing of their own department.

A significant move towards a sound national structure for IT apprenticeships was achieved this February when nine major players including Accenture, Atos, Capgemini, CSC, Fujitsu, HP, Logica, Siemens and Steria) signed a new charter for the employment of apprentices.

Supported by e-skills UK (the Sector Skills Council for Business and IT), the British Computer Society (BCS) and Business in the Community (BiTC), the nine succeeded in defining six specific apprenticeship roles and agreeing on matters such as entry qualifications, pay scales, training requirements, timescales, standards and routes to professionally qualified status.

All nine companies came to the table convinced of their own uniqueness, but once they started delving into the detail of how apprentices would be working, and in what roles, it became clear that the similarities from company to company greatly outweighed the differences, which were often largely down to individual company jargon.

The charter agreement has had a dramatic impact in just six months, with the number of apprentices taken on by the nine vendors rising from 200 last year to 500 confirmed places for this September's recruitment round, and further major expansion planned over the next few years.

All the companies involved are clear that this expansion is not at the expense of graduate recruitment programmes which will continue to be a major source of new talent.

It is a point taken up by Mark Heholt of e-skills: “Apprenticeships are available to incomers of all ages, but are particularly appealing to school leavers. Their expansion will help fill skills gaps in the industry, and provide employment opportunities in this key sector to people with a broad range of backgrounds and prior achievements.”

He points out that in UK IT there is still a long way to go, with only 2 per cent of IT employers offering any form of apprenticeship, against 5 per cent across all employers.

He also highlights the image deficit for IT, and for apprenticeships compared with university. Many schools are indifferent or even hostile to the apprenticeship idea, especially for their brighter students.

It is therefore good news that e-skills UK, together with the nine charter companies, are making major efforts to promote to schools the idea of apprenticeships, and of IT careers.

A particular challenge is the fact that only 15 per cent of school leavers entering IT apprenticeships are female.

My own company and others in the industry are now running Girls in IT events, visits to schools, and work experience programmes for school students, all aimed at resolving the gender imbalance.

The BCS is also actively involved with apprenticeships, as Cliff Lineker, its Strategic Business Development Director, confirms: “There is a need for an average of 129,000 new entrants a year into IT roles. We therefore strongly support the expansion in IT apprenticeship schemes, and the opportunity they provide to gain recognised professional qualifications”

At college level the creation of the charter group has already sparked a renewal of interest in working with employers to provide courses tailored to the needs of IT apprentices.

Colleges find it easier and more attractive to cater for several hundred learners following uniform courses than to meet the varying needs of many companies each with only a handful of apprentices.

But supply of apprenticeships and apprentice tuition is only one side of the equation.

Demand is equally important. And it is undeniable that changes in the university fees regime are prompting huge interest in apprenticeships among young people.

Apprentices may never be the complete answer to future staffing needs, but they can certainly be a major component.

For CIOs with little or no involvement in apprenticeships to date , e-skills UK, the Sector Skills Council for Business and Information Technology is an excellent starting place. Its website is a rich source of information on IT apprenticeships.

Christine Hodgson is Chairman of Capgemini UK and a member of the e-skills UK IT & Telecoms Industry Board

Pic: Ted Drake cc2.0