How apprenticeships can help solve the IT skills gap & gender divide

With National Apprenticeship Week dominating the headlines this week, one key area of discussion is how expanding the number of quality apprenticeships and informing young people about the routes available after school could go a long way to alleviating the skills gap we are currently experiencing in the IT sector.

Whoever is re-elected in May, creating more apprenticeship opportunities should be a key focus during the next parliament – it is absolutely vital that we inspire young people into careers in IT for the good of the future digital economy. The IT sector is clearly missing high level skills, and Matt Hancock, the business, enterprise and energy minister has recently talked about £185 million being invested into the teaching of STEM subjects – we need to see this make a difference. The Conservatives have committed to 3 million extra apprenticeships. The right skills policies are vitally important to inspire young people into careers that the industry needs. David Cameron has said himself that he has rarely met an apprentice who had heard about the opportunity through school – it’s clear that better careers advice is a key area towards addressing the issue and also inspiring young people – male and female – into an IT career.

The IT jobs market has experienced significant growth of late and is in a strong position right the way from graduate level through to experienced hires, as well as in permanent and contract roles. There is an ongoing war amongst SMEs and big brands for the best talent, but one problem is that companies often wait until the perfect, qualified professional comes along, which is a rare occurrence. Apprenticeships allow businesses to take competent individuals and train them in the required skills, a favourable method as opposed to waiting for a seemingly-qualified graduate with no practical experience. Even if companies wait for the right professional to come along, the war for talent will see demand outweighing supply, so I advise decision makers to address the issue by hiring capable IT apprentices and train or mould them up for specific business requirements or according to the bespoke technology you have. The investment is well worth the reward employers will receive in return along with peace of mind that they are building for the long-term.

It’s interesting to note recent data from Technojobs data which revealed a degree is by no means a prerequisite for an IT career. We found that under 50 per cent of IT professionals across Britain do not have a degree, a staggering number which challenges the preconceptions of those looking in on the industry. With this in mind, apprenticeships are a great route through which young people can achieve their career objectives.

Apprenticeships can introduce willing candidates the most basic skills, such as IT support or basic programming and to set them on their way. Young people really need this head start and apprenticeships are a great route to provide this.

Another study from Technojobs found that graduate vacancies in IT have risen by 55 per cent in the last five years, signifying a booming market. Yet IT University entrants have remained static over the same time period. So additionally we need to encourage more young people – especially women – to pursue these IT careers via University – but this in no way will fill the skills gap – this is just scratching the edge.

The poor representation of women in the IT industry is definitely something that apprenticeships can go some way towards solving. Tech employers are struggling to recruit female candidates, as women continue to spurn jobs in computers, with research showing that over half of employers reported just one in twenty (5%) applicants for IT roles to be women, over the last 12 months. Half of all UK tech employers reported this gender gap, with 91 per cent claiming that less than a fifth of all applications are from women. Our research also reflects industry figures showing that there were just 176,000 women employed as IT professionals in the UK in 2014, compared to 953,000 men – women make up just 16 per cent of the IT workforce. It’s not just the question of a skills shortage, but a lack of women choosing IT as a profession in the first place, as they hesitate to take their place in what is a male-dominated domain. In order to rectify this problem, we need to change the image of tech by making it more accessible to women, and that starts through apprenticeships.

The UK tech economy is a key element of future growth and inbound investment. Therefore ensuring that IT is a key part of the future of our digital economy is a definite priority. Therefore, employers and candidates alike should embrace National Apprenticeship Week and think about the opportunities they could offer one another. When we look at the overall IT jobs market it is clear the UK needs a higher volume of better skilled IT professionals, and apprentices are an effective way of beginning this long, up-hill battle. These opportunities should be embraced by employers but must first be incentivised by the Government, whoever is in power come May.

By Anthony Sherick, MD at specialist IT and technology job site, Technojobs

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