In an era of soaring university fees and theory-based courses, apprenticeships are giving young people a new route into the IT industry. Apprenticeships allow young people to gain professional qualifications while getting hands-on experience in a working environment. There are usually no tuition fees payable and businesses can source talent and train individuals in their own technology and in their own offices, locking them into the company ethos early on.

One such apprenticeship scheme is run in the UK by consulting firm Capgemini. Capgemini gives apprentices the opportunity to study part-time for a degree in their chosen field, gaining professional qualifications and certifications alongside a thorough grounding in software engineering and the IT industry through on-the-job training.

“As an organisation, we had lost junior developers, so we needed to do a business transformation and to grow talent,” says Rebecca Plant, Capgemini higher apprentice programme manager, application services.

“The engagement piece is huge. They’ve bought into you and we make sure we keep pushing them through the organisation.”

Capgemini’s scheme – which comprises a sponsored degree and level 4 NVQ – has been running since 2011, when it launched with a pilot of 34 apprentices. This number more than doubled to 85 in 2012 and Capgemini is looking to recruit 172 apprentices over the course of the current year.

The five-year scheme is mostly funded by the government with the company also making “a substantial investment”, says Plant.

During the course, apprentices are given the chance to develop skills in environments such as C# .Net, Drupal/PHP, Microsoft and Java, working with cloud computing, digital technologies and software-as-a-service (SaaS).

The apprentice course kicks off with a ‘boot camp’, which was last year rebranded as the ‘Accelerated Learning Environment’. “It’s about bridging the gap and ‘nesting’ them,” says Plant. Students are taken to Telford where they learn IT skills and go “through intensive personal development”, says Plant. “They also learn how they come across to people. The recruitment process is about getting apprentices with technical skills and those who are good around people too,” she adds.

Apprentices wear office attire, and learning and development options are offered at every stage, with regular reviews and re-assessment of salary in line with performance.

“They are very much part of Capgemini and we treat them as young professionals,” Plant says. “We introduce them to the scale and size Capgemini delivers to our clients. They are integrated into the teams early on, and they have mentors.”

Apprentices are aged between 18 and 24 and must not have completed a first year at university. They are recruited into specific business areas such as software engineering or business IT, with all learning Java at the start of the course. “Java is a great language and they get a sense of best practice,” says Plant.

The business IT module covers areas such as software lifecycles. The firm then picks up apprentices’ technology training when they come out of the Accelerated Learning Environment.

Raising the ratio

As part of the scheme, Capgemni is also looking to more women into the IT sector, a move which is already making progress. “We are looking at how we make IT attractive to women and our ratio of females is going up,” says Plant, who reports that in a recent intake of 12 apprentices, nine were women.

Pallavi Boppana, an 18-year-old higher apprentice, agrees that it’s tough being a woman in a male-dominated industry. “I’ve been trying to help out with hiring more women. At boot camp, five out of 35 were girls. But I think that will change,” she says.

Boppana, who is based in Leeds and who has been on the course since November last year, sees herself as more “logic-based” than an “IT person”. “I’ve really enjoyed the business side including project management and I could see myself in management in the future,” she explains.

James Gee, a 20-year-old junior software engineer based in Aston, joined the scheme in November 2011.

Gee says he has “always been fascinated by building things” and, combined with a love of software development, he would like to work for Google in the future.

Within this key area, Gee is currently studying for is an OCA certification Oracle Certified Associate in Java.

Gee started on several small government projects and is now working on an integration platform, integrating two systems alongside developers. “As part of that I worked on a small project that we hope to open source. We also do web services stuff we would like to open source,” he adds. “A key point is that you are able to pick the area you work in, and the work is project-based, allocated on the basis of what will improve your skills.”

Gee is now working in the Accelerated Delivery Centre, where there are five to nine people per team. “I sit on the tech team, working on CSS and JavaScript,” he says. “One change affects everything across the board.”

Because Capgemini uses specialist software, another bonus was to be trained on the technology before starting the job, says Gee.

On a typical day, Gee spends time working with code and supporting applications. He also spends time with senior colleagues learning as well as doing web services and the open source project. “I do software testing in Windows 7 and Linux and currently we are working on a virtual environment,” he says.

“Once you start playing with the tools it can be quite a shock. I came in without any programming experience and now I have much more.”

Higher apprentice and software engineer Samuel Lloyd, is a Java developer specialising in technology including Unix, WebLogic and SQL. At 18, he was one of the youngest in his intake last year and has now been in the business seven months.

Lloyd spent his spare time last summer building a website. “I don’t have a background in Java but I do have a coding background – I used HTML at A-level,” he says, adding: “Java isn’t quite as straightforward.”

Lloyd is currently working on a project based on an email communication system between two different companies, using Java.

“It’s a massive project and we are adding the main bulk of the processes,” he says.

“In my area for all new employees in Java there are certain standards you have to meet, like agile practices and that extends all the way to WebLogic. I will also get a software engineering degree.”

Lloyd, who chose the Capgemini apprenticeship over five university offers, says he would like to stay at the firm in the long term. “People are being priced out of degrees,” he says. “Experience can’t be delivered by a degree, it isn’t something you learn. From my perspective going into a team of adults is a challenge, but the sheer fact that I can balance seven or eight tasks is useful.”

A degree of experience

The substantive work experience and salary at the end of the five-year extended course is equal to or exceeds that of a graduate entrant; apprentices get a BSc degree in a chosen field as well as various certifications relevant to their area of work. There are no tuition fees and sponsorship gives apprentices a debt-free start to their career.

Boppana says apprenticeships are valuable because “you need young people in an industry that’s older”.

“The younger generation changes ideas and drives innovation,” she adds. “That’s not to say older people don’t, but the younger people add to it.

“Tuition fees are expensive and with apprenticeships you get the experience on the job – even if you don’t end up at Capgemini.

Gee agrees that having both the BSc and the on-the-job experience makes an apprenticeship attractive.

“Not only do you have a degree but you also have the experience to go with it,” he says. “Everyone is open to young people and at Capgemini, you can work alongside someone with experience and learn from them.”

Apprentices’ salaries start at £10,000, going up to £16,000 after the Accelerated Learning Environment.

When the apprenticeship is over, the graduate salary is around £30,000.

“Unlike with some degrees, we are teaching actual skills,” says Plant.

“The level 4 apprenticeship contributes towards the degree and they get to understand the business. They have surprised us with their energy and enthusiasm and with how quickly they progress.

“Everyone is really happy that you have given them the first step on the ladder.”