Accenture's IT apprentice grads make their mark in Newcastle

Accenture’s first wave of student apprentices in the north-east of England are graduating

The fine city of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne has plenty to boast about: Roman history that included the building of Hadrian’s Wall, stately 19th-century architecture and a pulsating nightlife that have made it famous as England’s party city… but, sat here in April in the far north-east of the country, I am reminded that it can get very cold.

I am on a terrace outside the appropriately named Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, converted in 2002 from the former flour mill on the Gateshead side of the Tyne River. The wind is whipping in, possibly from Scandinavia. Shivering opposite me are executives from Accenture, one of the world’s largest IT consulting companies.

The conjunction of Accenture with Newcastle, a city that has struggled for decades with unemployment, is one that still surprises some people but the services giant now employs about 630 people in the area. We’re talking because half an hour earlier, on the other side of the river, the first graduates from Accenture’s apprentice programme received their diplomas. The apprentice scheme started in Newcastle but there are now 140 apprentices working for the company across the UK.

Surrounded by their families in the lecture theatre of the Gothic jewel that is the North of England Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers, the 13 graduates are cheered to the rafters of this Victorian building. The day is a major milestone in what Accenture UK and Ireland managing director Olly Benzecry claims is “the best high-level apprentice IT scheme in the country”. The brainchild of Accenture veteran Bob Paton CBE, who is currently stepping down from the company, the ceremony is a touching coming together of the new and the old and good to see in a country where apprentice schemes and technology have not always been bedfellows.

Under the terms of the scheme, apprentices are selected for “attitude as well as aptitude” – in other words, Accenture seeks people with ambition and drive rather than just ready-made skills and qualifications. They split their time between local colleges and real-world, on-the-job projects, working alongside Accenture staff. At the end of the three-year course, they have the chance to work for Accenture without the burden of having to repay student loans and all the while collecting a decent, and incrementally rising, salary.


The Graduates

Shortly before the ceremony, I meet three of the 13 graduates from the inaugural intake.

Ben Manning from Whitley Bay on the nearby coast started the course at the tender age of 17 but was soon working on software development with Accenture on behalf of the UK’s tax collecting agency, HMRC.

Ashley Walker from Teesside, an hour’s drive south of Newcastle, had started a business studies degree but decided he preferred to pursue an IT career and was taken on by Accenture. After a six-week Java boot camp he was soon supporting the Rural Payments Agency, responsible for EU contributions to farmers and land owners.

“I had two modules that were IT-related [on the business course] and I found that more interesting,” he says. “And I prefer it in the North-East...”

Both Ben and Ashley openly admit to having been “nerds” from a young age but a third graduate, Scott Gillan from the Newcastle suburb of Longbenton, says he had little IT experience when he signed up. That hasn’t stopped him learning enough to be currently testing software for HMRC.

“The government makes a change [to tax rules] and when that comes in Ben’s team will build the change and I will test it,” he explains. “Accenture pays your £40,000 student fees and we finish without debt - but also we have three years’ experience.”

For Scott, the scheme also helps resolve a conundrum: the fact that potential employers want to see a specific asset on CVs that the traditional university route can’t always offer. “Everyone wants experience and nobody has it,” as he eloquently puts it.

All three young men say they will stay on and work for Accenture.

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Scott Gillan accepts his diploma from Accenture’s Bob Paton and Graham Sexton, head of Northumbria University’s Department for Computer Science and Digital Technologies

“There’s always going to be work there and I want to progress,” says Scott.

Regrets? The scheme doesn’t leave lots of space for partying but all three seem to accept that as a reasonable compromise.

“We’ve missed the nights out but you do better stuff with your free time than they would,” says Ben of undergraduates.

Does he have any criticisms? Not really, although he notes that future apprentices will likely benefit from a smoother programme than the first intake experienced as lessons have been learned along the way.


It’s cold outside

After a short walk along the Tyne and across the wondrous eye-shaped Gateshead Millennium Bridge we’re on that terrace in that cold.

Mark Larsen, managing director of Accenture’s Delivery Centre that is responsible for delivering projects from Newcastle, stresses that the apprentice scheme isn’t some act of selfless munificence on behalf of the company. It’s also a way to bolster the workforce with new skills and new ways of looking at the world.

“It would be great to claim it’s entirely altruistic but it’s of benefit to us as well,” he says. “You can attract some different people. Some might not have worked as well with schoolwork but they work better on a programme basis, working on problems that interest them.”

Larsen says that by tapping into the Newcastle apprentices, Accenture will, for example, be able to do more Agile development work up close with customers and capitalise on demand for cloud services like, Google, Pega and NetSuite by showing emerging best practices. India will continue to be a big source of major project work but a local presence adds genuine value.

The apprentice scheme is still only a few years old. All the graduates from the first generation were male and attracting women into IT careers remains a struggle.

Emma McGuigan, head of technology for Accenture UK and Ireland, adds, “We [at Accenture] have to face up to some of the challenges we have as a society. Like any organisation we’re challenged by that perception … The challenge is the image of IT held by the person on the street [that IT jobs aren’t for women].”

McGuigan says attitudes to IT being a male domain remain “alarming” but believes that “showing is so much better than talking and we want to show that it’s not about coding in an unlit room on your own.” There is no quota system in place but McGuigan says that Accenture’s target is to reach a stage where women are at least 40 per cent of the apprentice mix.

What about those lessons that the company has picked up via the apprentice programme? Jo McGovern, Accenture Delivery Centre operations manager, says the company has learned that asking students to study a range of disciplines and skills might not be ideal for everybody.

“We learned you have to allow people to fulfil their aspirations right from the start,” she says. “Rotation is not for all. They can rotate if they’re not sure what path to take, or if they’re enthusiastic about programming they can do that throughout.”

What has surprised her?

She says that would be the speed at which apprentices become valuable assets on projects and the willingness of clients to accept them - and even in one case have a senior manager at a customer offer to be a personal mentor.

The whole project and Accenture’s blossoming relationship with Newcastle must also have a beneficial impact on softening the image of the company, I suggest.

“There’s definitely some brand loyalty,” says McGovern. “It’s the continual evolution of the brand. We can’t stand still...”

But, she adds, having seen some of the current crop of graduates mature from first interview, there are also personal relationships being developed and a pride in seeing them enter the workplace full-time and have the ability to make a real impact in this increasingly digital world.

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Graduates celebrate in the library of Newcastle’s Mining Institute

Back inside, it’s warmer and families have gathered for afternoon tea. Bob Paton walks around the room, chatting and shaking hands. It is, he says, one of the proudest days of his life.


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