What is the true value of IT apprenticeships?
Training and Development

What is the true value of IT apprenticeships?

Recent official figures show that the UK government's apprenticeship levy has had a lacklustre initial take-up. Despite being in effect since April, by August only around half of the roughly 20,000 eligible companies had registered for the fund. Of those that did register, many were using it in unconventional ways that arguably go against the spirit of the scheme. Sending executives on MBA courses isn't really what an apprenticeship is all about.

It could be argued that any boost to business is a good boost, but if used wisely the levy has the potential to change one industry more than any other – the IT industry.

Technology is one of the few careers in which the lack of a degree isn't necessarily a barrier to success. Anyone in this industry over 40 years of age probably graduated when Computer Science degrees were in their infancy, if they existed at all. People now in their late 40s and 50s doubtless knew more than their teachers, having grown up with early home computers rather than being taught about them in abstract terms.

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Obviously the IT industry has moved on in leaps and bounds since those days. It's more structured, organised and formalised. As a result, there are clear educational paths into various IT careers. IDG Connect has covered these in detail in the past, with discussions about the value of Computer Science degrees compared to alternative routes.

But good minds can and do find other routes into IT. People who aren't necessarily best served by a three-year academic degree can jump in from the side lines. Any list of successful people without degrees is likely to include a significant number of IT people.

This is true of the UK perhaps more so than anywhere else except the US. While interviewing three executives at VMware recently – Richard Bennett (Head of Advisory Services EMEA), David Phull (Vice President & General Manager UK&I) and Colin Bannister (Northern EMEA Head of Presales) – it emerged that none of them has a university degree.

Bannister began a degree in geology but didn't finish it. He started a summer job as a computer operator at Tesco and never went back. Phull didn't take the traditional university route either, instead finding his way into project management in sales and marketing via a job at DHL.

Bennett dropped out of a teaching degree to start working at Cisco. He admits to being bored at university and he's not alone in that. There's a certain mindset amongst IT people that isn't always suited to the academic environment. If you're used to near-instant results from technology and keep your fingers on the pulse of IT developments, three years is not just a long time – it's a lifetime. Entire product cycles can come and go in that time, as can the in-fashion coding tools, development platforms and target markets.

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There's a lot to be said for the formal stability of a degree course compared with other methods of IT education. But there's a lot to be said against degrees, too: course content must be planned and approved in advance (sometimes years in advance); the systems and processes being taught aren't necessarily the ones most suited to industry; courses tend to be generalised rather than specific; and then there's the debt…

The recent launch of an inquiry into student debt is likely to concentrate the minds of potential IT students considering their options. Spending three years at university and emerging with £40-£50k ($53-$66) of debt and a piece of paper is certainly an option, but not necessarily the best one.

Apprenticeships offer an alternative, and some tech companies see their value. Bannister in particular is a big fan of apprenticeships as a means to learn on the job and make money at the same time. Having started at the bottom of the company and worked his way up, he strongly recommends taking entry-level jobs to learn how a company really works. “We're seeing a different mindset between the apprentices and the graduates,” he says. “The apprentices are moulding better into the workplace."

Phull is less concerned about whether or not a potential employee has a degree than other characteristics. He's a firm believer in hard work, applying oneself and stepping outside your current day job to investigate new concepts. “I mentor other people in this situation, and I recruit for attitude and aptitude.”

Both men said that they hear the same story from their major clients and partners, including large enterprises such as IBM: in many cases the apprentices are better suited to the workplace than the graduates.

With an IT apprenticeship, a student can learn on the job, get paid, have no debt at the end of it and potentially also come out with a qualification. As Bannister says, “What's not to like?”

He acknowledges that there's a certain stigma associated with welders and mechanics taking apprenticeships, which is undeserved since such skills are not appropriate to a degree course. The same is true for IT apprenticeships, at least in some cases. “There are options and choices. A degree is not necessarily the wrong thing. It depends on the goal.”

Despite the negative press around the apprenticeship levy, it could be one of the best things to happen to the UK technology sector for years. It might encourage young people to find their way into serious IT roles without spending three years racking up debt and emerging with a degree that may not be especially relevant to their desired career.

It might also address the biggest challenge of all, that of maintaining the stream of new recruits with the skills to keep technology moving forward in the UK. As Bannister says, “IT has a frighteningly low take-up at A-level and GCSE. We simply don't make it attractive in schools to young people. Apprenticeships might help generate the interest to change that.”


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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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