Series: Five pointers for great apprenticeships in 2019

It’s the elusive question that so many employers want answered before they commit to an apprenticeship programme – what does a really good apprenticeship look like? Stefano Capaldo, Group Managing Director at digital apprenticeship provider Firebrand Training, has five key suggestions from his experiences in 2018 to help employers work out how apprenticeships can deliver the results they want for their business.


Pointer 2: Digital capability is no longer ‘just’ for IT employees

Digital skills are, by far, the fastest-changing skillset that businesses require to remain successful. Thirty years ago, very few individuals used a computer at work. Twenty years ago, fax was still far more widely used than email. Today, multiple technological advances that will transform business operations are becoming reality - artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning are just some of the most regularly mentioned.

Digitisation is beginning to affect so many aspects of current practice that even employees who cannot see an obvious ‘digital’ component to their jobs will need to consider how one might be introduced in the near future. In practice, this means everyone from senior management to entry-level recruits needs to begin embedding best digital practice into their own jobs.

To support the introduction of new digital skills while minimising impact on business as usual, employers need training solutions that can integrate into employees’ daily routine. It should move people from a basic level of digital literacy to all-around digital competence through using technology as part of their everyday activities. This, of course is the very essence of an apprenticeship – work-based, contextualised learning designed to deliver brand new skills.

How IT broke out of its team to become part of every business

Data analytics is one of the fastest growing digital specialisms. Companies and customers are using readily available tools to provide increasing amounts of data on businesses’ activity. The annual Data Never Sleeps survey by business intelligence software specialist Domo indicates that 90% of all data ever generated by humankind was created in the last two years.

The important point here is that it isn’t just digital businesses which generate data. Every business, no matter what its central premise, benefits from analysing performance data to see how it can deliver better results. And as companies record more information, they need greater numbers of skilled individuals to conduct this analysis and make recommendations for improvement. It is thus no surprise that in the last six to nine months, Firebrand’s sales team has received more enquiries about data analytics apprenticeships than for any other area of training.

Cyber security is another area where embedding technology into everyday operations has created skills demand. Online communication, shopping, appointment booking, form-filling and bill-paying all require the swift and secure transfer of sensitive customer data protected by increasing amounts of legislation. Making sure these interactions remain secure requires more individuals who know how to identify system vulnerabilities and protect them against attack.

Helping to deliver the ‘right’ digital skills

While businesses are beginning to identify the need for people to increase their digital skills levels in these areas, the difficulty we have as providers is that the current suite of digital apprenticeships is not flexible enough to support every individual who needs digital training. Existing apprenticeships are aimed very much at digital specialists in a particular discipline. The majority of people need a much higher-level understanding of emerging technologies, plus the ability to gain more specialised skills in one or two areas.

Our discussions with employers have identified a growing need to offer various standards at a number of levels. We should also consider developing qualifications that provide more transferable digital competency applicable to a variety of roles and sectors, in the same way as, for example, project management standards. To get a better idea of the current needs landscape, Firebrand is working with our employers to identify two core requirements:

  • People whose remit would not enable them to complete all the competencies for current standards, but who would nevertheless benefit from elements of current training. We have, for example, spoken to managers whose teams would benefit from additional data analysis skills, but who could not be responsible for collation and cleansing of data.
  • Any specific digital skills training that could be built into apprenticeships to benefit apprentices on non-digital standards. A good current example is the recently released CompTIA IT Essentials course, which provides a high-level overview of how core digital applications work and what they do within a business. This is a crucial element of understanding overall operations which would benefit apprentices in areas including business administration, sales and marketing and management.


Embedding the will to keep on learning

The greatest synergy between digital skills and apprenticeships is that both of them tend to be taken up by people with a desire to keep learning. It is an absolute necessity for IT and digital professionals to keep current on the latest technologies – Firebrand’s instructors devote weekly time to upgrading their own skills on fast-changing products like Microsoft Azure. This filters down to the less specialised individuals, who need to stay aware of changes to the technology they work with.

Statistically, apprenticeships encourage people to continue learning after they conclude their qualification. In the DfE’s most recent (2017) evaluation of apprenticeships, 73% of apprentices said they expected to undertake further study within the next two to three years. This desire to continue upskilling is precisely the mindset that a 2018 report by McKinsey stressed businesses should adopt. To minimise the workforce challenges posed by increasing digitisation, the report advocated being willing to train and retrain staff by providing training opportunities in areas where skill needs are greatest.

It makes sense, therefore, to prioritise in-work training as a way to deliver the next generation of digital skills. While specialists like Firebrand have the expertise required, we need broad and detailed data from employers on the level and type of digital skills required across their workforce – including those people in non-specialist roles. Only once we fill in more details of the bigger picture can we create a spectrum of digital training that truly begins to close UK plc’s skills gap.

Pointer 1: Taking time to understand what good looks like.

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