Apprenticeships are rarely out of the news. Not only are they great political fodder but they’re also going a long way towards plugging the gaping skills gap that exists in the technology and digital industries.
Unfortunately, many of the headlines have been grabbed by larger blue chip organisations that have pretty much set the agenda when it comes to apprenticeships. They are able to leverage their name, size and resources to tempt raw talent in. But in reality most apprentices in larger firms are trained on the company’s own software, gaining valuable skills in enterprise software but not necessarily knowledge that is transferable to those of us working in digital.

This leaves a giant hole to fill for smaller digital and technology-driven companies whose needs for digital software skills are simply not being met.
Collectively, smaller digital agencies employ thousands of people in the UK. According to a report from Econsultancy, digital agencies predicted growth of 30% in 2014. Other figures suggest there will be one million vacancies in digital over the next decade. Many of these roles will be within smaller businesses. That’s a lot of empty seats to fill.

But apprentices won’t know what we’ve got to offer unless we tell them. Now’s the time for the sector to work together to gain the recruiting power of the larger firms. Government initiatives like Trailblazer are helping employers collaborate in order to do this, but many agencies don’t know where to start when it comes to finding the right apprentices.

developing digital skills
Here are my top tips on how the digital industry can help itself and not lose out on the best talent.

  • Use the help that’s already out there – most people still think that the best route into our sector is with a degree. But that’s only one way in. The industry is finally starting to realise that we need different types of people if we are to maintain our vibrancy and diversity.
    Apprenticeships are being developed that provide on the job training as well as the theoretical study that can take the apprentice to degree level as they work. And there’s funding available making it much more accessible for smaller agencies to take advantage of.

o Trailblazers – developed by The Tech Partnership, Trailblazers is a set of apprenticeship standards that has been set up for employers, by employers. This means you can feel confident that you’re giving your apprentices the skills they need to make a meaningful contribution, while taking much of the administrative pain away from you. Standards are in place for everything from software developers to digital marketers.
o Training providers – government money is available to help fund your apprenticeships but you will need to recoup that from your training partner. There are a number of providers to choose from, but Firebrand is one example of an organisation that has recently extended its modules to include essential creative and digital skills.
o E-learning – there are fantastic initiatives out there such as Udacity, which enables students to earn a ‘nanodegree’ in everything from web development to data analysis through its online learning portal. This is a brilliant way to supplement your existing training offering.

  • Partner with universities and colleges – Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) recently enrolled 60 students on its degree apprenticeship in Digital and Technology Solutions. This is an industry-driven initiative but the course is two thirds funded by the government. It will enable businesses to develop their own graduate-level employees. Apprentices can work full-time with their employer while studying at MMU’s business school. And the course is backed by both large and small employers in the region.

No doubt we’ll see more of these partnerships between industry and education. Smaller agencies should contact their own local universities to see if they can offer support to or partner with similar apprentice degree schemes.

  •  Age is just a number – why are we so fixated on only recruiting young people in our industry? One way to fill the skills gap would be to find people with experience of other industries who want to retrain. Initiatives such as National Coding Week, which took place in September, are looking to encourage just that. We just need to be able to provide the support and training that people need to make that leap. Trailblazer looks beyond age and is open to apprentices of any age, with any previous qualifications.
  • Think local – skills shortages exist in every corner of the UK and we can’t all chase after the same candidates in the hope we’ll secure the odd one. Digital agencies need to look to their own vicinity to find the next generation of apprentices.

We’re headquartered in one of the five poorest boroughs in London but have made a conscious decision to find apprentices from local schools and by engaging with youth organisations in the area.

The simple fact is there’s not enough talent in the usual places so we want to find the talent that’s hidden on our doorstep.
This is a fascinating industry to work in already but we can make it so much better if we start looking for passion, not just qualifications.


Quentin Ellis is Senior Partner and UX director at Cohaesus.