Bridging the digital skills gap with apprenticeships


    National Apprenticeship Week is not only a celebration of the amazing work being done by employers and apprentices across the UK, but also a chance to address the digital skills gap and encourage fairer opportunities, particularly in the tech and digital sector. 

    This year’s ‘Build the Future’ theme is all about ensuring that young people and local talent are equipped with the right digital skills that businesses and economies need, regardless of gender, ethnicity or background. 

    In this article we catch up with business leaders from across the Bruntwood SciTech network to see how they’re encouraging this important wave of new talent, skills and diversity whilst powering local economies along the way.

    ’'It might sound cliche, but apprenticeships really are a ‘win-win’ for all involved.Businesses can grow local talent and encourage diversity, while apprentices can help the business grow its skills base as the company expands.’’ - Geoff Stevenson, Regional Manager at the new Manchester HQ for Ada, the National College for Digital Skills 

    Why are apprenticeships crucial for businesses and the wider economy, particularly right now?

    James Dentith, Head of Employee Engagement at Baltic Apprenticeships based at Platform in Leeds said: Apprenticeships are one of the mechanisms that are going to help the UK economy recover from the impact of Covid-19; they build expertise quickly within high-growth areas and bridge those skills gaps we need to overcome for the future.’’

    Baltic Apprenticeships work alongside a range of employers, from SMEs to internationally recognised brands to support new apprentices and existing members of staff to begin a continuous new apprenticeship journey.  James said: “Apprenticeships offer an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to explore new career options. For example, in 2020 we doubled the number of female apprentices we placed in digital and tech roles compared with the year before.”’

    Are apprenticeships just for young people? 

    Dr Marilyn Comrie OBE, Director at the Blair Projectlocated at Circle Square and CEO of the new Manchester Innovation Activities Hub (MIAH) which will be based in the newest expansion at Manchester Science Park said: “Apprenticeships are not just for 16 year olds, they are for anyone to access at any point in their life to learn new real world skills and get paid whilst doing it. In future it will be what employers look for; the practical application of knowledge.’’

    “Not only do apprenticeships upskill and reskill people whilst they earn, but companies are then investing in growing that pipeline of talent which is needed to grow their business.”

    James from Baltic Apprenticeships added: “Something that we battle against at Baltic is this preconception that apprenticeships are only for younger people. It’s an opportunity for anyone to develop their skills and start a career.” 

    Are there any barriers that might prevent people from applying for apprenticeships and working in the tech and digital sectors?

    Geoff Stevenson, Regional Manager for Ada, the National College for Digital Skills said: “Sometimes it’s seeing the path between where people are now and how to get into roles that might seem obscure or out of reach. There’s a lot of work to be done on myth busting and challenging stereotypes. Sometimes a job may feel out of reach just because a person believes they don’t fit that ‘type’.’’ 

    How do role models help break down barriers and stereotypes? 

    MIAH’s Marilyn Comrie said: “As the CEO of MIAH, I hope that being black and female will inspire others, especially marginalised groups. It lets people see their own possibilities in my reality. My presence alone will inspire people to think ‘I can do it too.’ They can see me and choose to be me, and this is what breaking down barriers and having role models is all about.’’

    Why might it be more valuable for someone to consider an apprenticeship over a degree at university?

    James Dentith from Baltic Apprentices said: “For young people, a big barrier can be the perception that a tech career is only available to you if you go to university, but there are all kinds of barriers here – from anxiety about student debt to the social, economic, and educational choices someone has to make early on in their life to line up a place on a university course. With an apprenticeship, these barriers don’t exist.’’

    “The result is that someone can hit the ground running, build up real-world skills, and reach a higher level in their digital career much earlier than some of their peers.’’

    How can businesses encourage the growth of local talent in their own cities?

    Speaking about MIAH and the work that The Blair Project does in Manchester, Marilyn said:  “Manchester has global strengths in advanced manufacturing, materials science, clean growth; we are the city that developed Graphene… but we need to make sure not to leave local people behind. Local people should be able to access these new facilities and work in these growth areas. Our local people are our biggest asset.

    “MIAH will do this by targeting low income residents to reduce inequality and provide opportunities to learn new skills that employers are looking for particularly in the clean growth, energy and manufacturing sectors. MIAH will be a space for innovative SMEs to come together and collaborate with new talent and skills. We’re so excited that MIAH will have its HQ at Manchester Science Park as this campus and the Bruntwood SciTech network is an engine of growth for the whole region.’’

    “The Blair Project on the other hand develops the pipeline of talent from school all the way into careers in STEM by getting young people involved in converting used petrol go-karts into high power battery-tech ecarts. It means young people can learn about new innovations in tech whilst having fun.’’ 

    How are other initiatives in the UK helping to encourage equal opportunities and talent attraction? 

    Katie Gallagher, Managing Director at Manchester Digital said: “This week not only importantly marks National Apprenticeship Week, but also the start of the Manchester Digital Skills Festival - one of the most important events in our annual calendar. Our Skills Festival brings together industry professionals, educators, students, graduates and tech job seekers with one shared goal - to help bridge the digital skills gap.’’

    “Greater Manchester is a fantastic example of how industry can work together to create new opportunities for the benefit of businesses, young people and local residents. Bruntwood SciTech  is a key player in this, especially across its network of science and tech campuses which bring together the UK’s most forward-thinking businesses.''

    “Our location at Manchester Technology Centre at Circle Square means we’re co-located with other businesses working on similar projects and as a result we can forge new relationships and opportunities. “When businesses open their doors to collaboration and partnerships, this will subsequently open new doors for young people, talent, diversity and the wider economy.” 

    How else might being part of a collaborative network with other businesses and partners help both business growth and the digital skills gap?

    Geoff Stevenson from Ada said: “One thing that matters to us is working closely with industry and being connected with the local ecosystem, so we jumped at the chance to have a HQ in  Manchester. Being partners with Bruntwood SciTech has already been beneficial connecting us into the regional ecosystem and like-minded businesses who share a similar goal.’’ 

    “We’re now connected with Manchester Digital, Northcoders, MIAH and helping Hewlett Packard Enterprise train up an apprentice. This connected ecosystem and network is so important in creating new opportunities.’’

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