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Apprenticeships: Championing alternative routes into STEM careers

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It is widely known that the tech industry is made up of only 17 per cent women and that less girls study subjects in Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths (STEM).

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So with fewer females in the pipeline what are companies doing to attract students to join their firms and why would an A-Level student choose an apprenticeship in STEM rather than attend university?

We asked a selection of experts from technology and engineering to share their experiences of recruiting young people.

Jenny Taylor, ‎UK Graduate, Apprenticeship and Student Programme Manager at IBM, said: “We should of course not deter students from entering university, but we need to educate them about all the options available for their career path.”

Taylor said there is no denying that there is a lack of uptake across STEM subjects as well as a huge gender imbalance within industries requiring these skills.

“For many years now, only a small percentage of females have been attracted to working in the technology industry, and as leader of IBM’s graduate, student and apprenticeship programmes, I am passionate about addressing the situation. The business case for diversity in the workplace is very clear and at IBM we focus particularly on engaging and inspiring younger girls through our Girls’ Schools’ Outreach programme,” she said.

Taylor explained that one of IBM’s current employees – Sadie Hawkins – was inspired to join the IBM apprenticeship programme after attending one of the company’s school outreach events: “She then went on to achieve the National Apprentice of the Year Award 2013, which we are extremely proud of. Sadie is now an integral member of the team within our Global Business Services Division.

“Apprenticeships are a great way to encourage uptake in STEM disciplines and it is clear there needs to be more championing of alternative routes into successful roles with a clear career progression.”

Elaine Rowlands, Head of HR at PCMS, a retail technology developer, is just as passionate about apprenticeship programmes.

She said: “I am passionate about apprenticeships being a credible alternative to university for women looking to break into the tech world – particularly in a fast-paced industry like retail technology, where new products are shaping the consumer experience every day.

“Apprentices have an immediate edge by going straight into on-the-job training, gaining the real-life work experience essential to thrive in a competitive sector.”

Bradbury Group Ltd a UK manufacturer of steel doors, security grilles and cages and currently employees three female apprentices; two work in its technical department and another is a member of its marketing team.

Paul Sweeting, Technical Director at Bradbury Group Ltd, said: “Recruiting technical staff can be a struggle, so we want anyone — male or female — to feel that they’re welcome to join our team if they have the necessary skills or drive to learn.”

Sweeting said it can be difficult to find women for its technical roles, due to the lack of women coming through the pipeline: “It’s more difficult to find female candidates for our technical department, likely due to the fact that engineering has long been considered a male-oriented field.

“Therefore, we make an effort to encourage more women to consider a career in engineering. For example, we supported National Women in Engineering Day 2016 through our social media channels and website. Plus, we published two blog posts written by our female technical apprentices about their experiences with our company.”

Bradbury Group Ltd has been working on its strategy to recruit and retain young talent in general: “When we began recruiting apprentices, North Lindsey College helped us access and review potential students. We ran an open day and 20 students applied for positions. Six were successful and joined the Bradbury Engineering Academy, which our female apprentices are a part of.

“We recognise that these young people have become valuable assets to the company and we want to give them a career. Therefore, they’ll all be offered full-time jobs with us after completing their training.”

A new centre has opened in Oxfordshire aimed at tackling the skills shortages faced by technology and engineering companies in the area.

The centre will train 125 young people annually and is a joint venture between the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Training provider JTL has been appointed to manage the centre.

The training aims to create ‘work ready’ trainees, apprentice engineers and lab technicians through training in the workplace. As a not-for-profit, all funds are set to be invested back into delivering training.

David Martin, UKAEA’s Chief Operating Officer and ex-apprentice himself, said: “With the support of high tech sector companies in the area, Oxford Advanced Skills will help resolve the critical skills shortages we are currently experiencing. This venture highlights how seriously we take the need for exceptional quality young people making it into the workforce in this area.

“JTL has huge experience in providing work-based learning across England and Wales, with over 6,000 apprentices currently working towards qualifications with them across the building services engineering sector.”

Jon Graham is JTL’s Chief Executive, said: “These are really exciting times for apprentices in the Oxford area. We have been working in Oxfordshire for many years but decided recently that in order to be able to provide the quality of training that young people deserved we needed to launch our own training facilities, which we have now achieved with our premises at Culham.

“Through the work we do there and what UKAEA have seen while on site, it became obvious that there was an opportunity to expand our remit and join with UKAEA to develop this new facility, targeting exceptional young people who are needed by high technology companies operating in Oxford and the Thames Valley.”

IT short courses instead of apprenticeships

David Baker, Director of Datrix Training, said in today’s market we are saturated with technology, and IT skills are more important than ever.

He noted that in the competitive job market skills such as word-processing, using databases, spreadsheets, using the Internet, social media & email and even designing rudimentary self-publication web pages are often asked of as standard.

“Currently the UK is facing an IT skills gap which is affecting businesses ability to grow, thankfully more of us are showing an interest in gaining further IT skills in order to bridge this gap,” Baker said.

“Gaining digital and IT skills is a great way to equip yourself with employability armour, currently two fifths of UK businesses are having trouble recruiting staff with suitable skills to drive their business. A technical IT course, from Microsoft Office to Java Fundamentals is right for any business as the need to succeed in the digital market becomes a key part of all company’s success. These skills will be learned through university or an apprenticeship but can also be accessed through short term flexible learning courses that suit millennial living.”

Baker said gaining technical skills through a short-term course is a great way to jumpstart your career and “give you that digital edge without the commitment to a three or four year course.

“These can often be more suitable than university courses as they don’t have as much ‘red tape’ and the syllabus can evolve quickly with the demands of the IT skills market, always ensuring the courses are up to date. The digital age isn’t slowing down and gaining IT skills that are highly relevant in today’s world is a great way to increase confidence, improve employability and drive career success in a market that’s crying out to hire skilled candidates.”

Lynne Downey, Head of Online Learning at University College of Estate Management, said increasing numbers of industries, such as engineering and chartered surveying, are now focusing on widening participation – both in gender, ethnicity and more.

“This current drive to accommodate employees outside the usual demographic empowers women to pick and choose the facets of both academic education and vocational training that best suit their needs – and find viable solutions for their career path. However, the decision between attending a university and taking an apprenticeship is not as clear-cut as it once was, with many alternative options now available.”

She added: “A traditional degree programme can be the right choice for someone interested in a field of study that focuses on sharing knowledge and carrying out research. Yet for those who want to ‘earn while they learn’, the option to study a degree programme online is becoming increasingly popular. While an apprenticeship may suit someone with an interest in a more vocational field, an apprenticeship programme that takes a blended learning approach – with the opportunity to gain a degree and become accredited in the field – may be the best option all round.”

“Both traditional universities and apprenticeships providers are widening their scopes each year, and opening up more and more varied options for following a career path. With this in mind, it’s essential that the individual chooses a route which best suits their skills and ambitions; whether it’s studying a traditional degree, joining an apprenticeship scheme – or a mix of both – the options are no longer just either attending an institution every day or combining classroom education with a job.”

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