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.

<backlink> Pointer 1: Taking time to understand what good looks like
<backlink> Pointer 2: Digital capability is no longer ‘just’ for IT employees

Pointer 3: Core skills will get you further than certifications.

By far the most common tale across our conversations with hundreds of employers every year is their struggle to hire IT professionals with the necessary qualifications and experience to support their current projects. As a rule, the small pool of experienced personnel for hire tend to work on a contract basis, moving between companies where they can command a higher salary or extend the variety of their CV. This makes it difficult to retain highly skilled personnel on a fixed salary for any length of time.

The impact of this is not just a lack of people with relevant skills. More significantly, it means businesses lack digital employees with a real understanding of their business and its drivers, who can develop digital solutions which meet their company’s specific priorities, and who change and improve their approach as the technology evolves. Such employees focus on the problem to be solved first, and the products to be used second – meaning they continue to be effective even as technology changes around them.

When hiring apprentices to develop your digital capability, it is therefore crucial to make sure they develop this solution-oriented approach. Apprentices should reach a point where they can confidently break down an IT problem to identify the specific technical issue, whom it affects and the impact it is having, so they can apply an appropriate remedy. To do this effectively, they need to develop a solid understanding of their business’ systems, each system’s purpose, functionality and how they interconnect, as well as how they are used operationally.

Developing such understanding successfully depends very much on a provider’s teaching approach. A good provider will go beyond teaching apprentices how to execute a particular command, explaining the reasons this command might be used and in what situations such a command would be useful. The way to identify the best apprenticeship training providers is thus to look at their approach to embedding this kind of full understanding into their teaching.

Effective digital training will, for example, explain a concept in a way that allows apprentices to understand its function and purpose. I once watched a Firebrand instructor explain DNS lookup to a member of the HR team during a sales pitch. They compared the process to ordering a product from the Argos catalogue using its assigned product number – an easily understandable analogy for even the least technically minded learner. Within 20 minutes, the HR team member was able to execute the process themselves.

It is important to remember that without developing this basic understanding, apprentices are unlikely to be able to gain vendor certifications because they will not have a sufficient base level of technical knowledge. While the chance to gain multiple certifications may seem more attractive to an employer, spending too much time training to pass exams will put pressure on the apprentice, and may make them more likely to withdraw if they find they are failing exams due to lack of time to prepare. Crucially, chasing certification also reduce the time the apprentice can spend applying knowledge in the workplace – and as End Point Assessment is based around judging how effectively this has happened, too many certifications may affect the apprentice’s overall chance of passing their apprenticeship.

That said, properly integrated vendor certifications can enhance an apprentice’s understanding and make them more effective in their role, so it’s worth asking providers what opportunities apprentices have to gain additional certifications while they are training. Firebrand’s programmes, for example, give apprentices the option to gain an additional relevant certification after they have achieved all the knowledge modules required to pass their qualification. This not only ensures they have the underlying knowledge to make best use of the additional skills they gain, but also helps them understand that specific product knowledge is additional – rather than essential – to effective digital activity.
To guide you when considering the balance of different providers’ programmes, a good digital training provider will be able to explain to you:

  • Which certifications included in their programme are a requirement of the standard (certification in some products/processes is recognised as proof that an apprentice has gained all knowledge associated with a particular module).
  • Where other certified courses are included, the reasons for using this training as a basis for gaining the knowledge and skills required by the standard.
  • Pass rates for any certifications they recommend including which are not part of the standard. A low pass rate may be a sign that a provider has included a course based on employer demand, rather than because apprentices really benefit from undertaking it.


The most important thing to remember is that formal training is only becomes useful when apprentices have the chance to apply it in their jobs. Employers must work with training providers to make sure apprentices have regular tasks, larger projects or even secondment opportunities that will allow them to demonstrate the skills they are learning. This provision is the most essential part of a successful apprenticeship and the most beneficial for all parties involved. Apprentices immediately grasp the practical context of their learning, employers get an instantaneous return on their investment, and providers can quickly benchmark how effectively their training delivers results.

One employer working with Firebrand explained to us how they used a Lego building activity to introduce apprentices to Scrum team-working methodology. Within half an hour of starting the exercise, they saw apprentices move from working in isolated groups to communicating as a collaborative network. A few months later, the same apprentices confidently presented their latest project to a local MP – as a team.

The point is clear. Spending a couple of hours with a box of Lego bricks won’t teach apprentices a product or get them a certification, but it will teach them how to work together effectively. Delivering these kinds of skills alongside solid technical knowledge is what raises apprenticeships from ‘just another’ type of training to a foundation for business transformation.

Next week: Pointer 4: Avoid setting apprentices up to fail.

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