Scotland’s Tech Skills Dilemma – We Must Grow Apprenticeships 

Apprenticeships could hold the key to solving Scotland’s skills crisis

By Christopher Shekleton, Director for Scotland at digital and tech skills company QA

SCOTLAND is facing a daunting digital and tech skills crisis. In January 2022 alone, 18,527 new jobs were advertised for technology-related roles in the country. This is up a staggering 77% compared to January 2020 (10,453) and is equivalent to needing to increase the headcount of the entire Scottish tech sector by 20%. But Tech employment growth in Scotland from Jan 2020 to Jan 2022 was in line with the UK average at 2.1%. This shows that Scottish employers are facing the same constraints as the rest of the country. A need to grow employment fast to cover the tech and digital skills they require, but a lack of ready-skilled talent to fill the gaps.

Almost every business is now a tech business, requiring adoption and deployment of the latest technologies to arm employees with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively, provide a modern, relatable customer experience and remain competitive in their market. The pandemic has played a major role in accelerating this with remote working becoming the new normal and retailers, restaurateurs and others desperately implementing tech to allow them to trade online. According to the Office of National Statistics, internet sales as a percentage of retail sales unsurprisingly exploded during the pandemic. As of December 2021, they were still sitting more than 6 percentage points higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

It seems reasonable to assume that the clamour for these skills will only increase. So successfully growing tech in Scotland will depend on the creation of a sustainable talent pipeline that will ensure skills are brought into the workplace faster and can swiftly help businesses solve their specific tech and digital challenges. Relying on a limited supply of ready-skilled workers to plug existing gaps isn’t realistic, and often does little more than move a finite source of skills from employer to employer. Employers must look elsewhere for solutions. Apprenticeships will be a vital piece of this puzzle, bringing new talent in at an early-career stage and re-skilling existing talent to provide vital skills within a workforce that already understands the business. 

This particularly includes helping those 16-19 year olds leaving secondary or further education to understand the right path for them when it comes to education and employment. While Scottish higher education students are not subjected to the same economic burden as their English counterparts through tuition fees, university is still by no means a free venture. 

The benefits of apprenticeships are clear. For individuals, particularly those who are not sure whether university is the right option for them, earning while they continue to learn has a clear attraction. 

Ciara, aged 19 is a software development apprentice at NatWest who chose an apprenticeship because she “took part in a summer internship and found I not only enjoyed it more than school, but I learned more this way. I am not very good at studying and therefore further education never appealed to me so when I learnt about apprenticeships it just made sense to me that this was my next step.” Ciara says that if she wasn’t doing an apprenticeship she “would be struggling to pass a uni course and working a part time job I probably hate.” 

Dylan is 21. Another NatWest apprentice specialising in Data Analytics/IT and Telecommunications has had a similar experience. He says after finishing his business diploma at college he wanted to pursue a career in a ‘real-life organisation’ but wasn’t sure he’d be able to get a full-time role in technology. “I strived to climb the ladder by starting an apprenticeship” Dylan says. “[Getting] paid while working in a real-life environment while gaining a qualification was a win-win situation.” Dylan believes that if it hadn’t been for his apprenticeship “I wouldn’t have had the experience and confidence to work in a real-life banking organisation.”

For employers, who are already changing hiring practices to target school leavers in a bid to help close the tech skills gap faster, apprenticeships bring improved productivity, help develop skills relevant to their organisation and help improve the quality of products and services. Tech and digital apprenticeships can support businesses of all shapes and sizes. Fiona, now 29, ended up as an IT apprentice for whisky makers Whyte & Mackay having always enjoyed IT at school. At the time she took her apprenticeship, high school was her highest form of education. Fiona says that if it hadn’t been for her apprenticeship “it would have taken me longer to gain the experience, knowledge and certifications in order to get me into the world of IT.” Fiona’s apprenticeship has allowed her to go on to complete vendor exams and work at a Cloud company. She now works as an IT Assessor at QA.

But to make apprenticeships successful, QA believes more must be done to increase awareness and visibility. QA has recently seen a drop off in the number of 16-19 year-olds as a percentage of all apprenticeship starts with 60% of all starts now in the 20+ age group. In Scotland as a whole, this age group made up just 35% of all Modern Apprenticeship starts in the first three quarters of the 2020/2021 academic year while 81% of all starts already had qualifications at SCQF 6 and above.

To help ensure more school leavers make the right choices for them, they must be informed of their options when deciding what to do with their lives after secondary or further education. Research from QA shows that 60% of 16–24-year-olds believe you need a degree to start a career in tech, while apprentices aged 16-24 surveyed by the Sutton Trust said better information and support ahead of starting apprenticeships may have convinced their peers to consider it.

There is also very little awareness of the expected salaries on offer in the industry, with QA’s research revealing that only 10% of 16–24-year-olds believe it would be possible to go on to earn £75k in tech. Equally, businesses must understand the options open to them through apprenticeships. As well as new hires, apprenticeships can be a powerful way to re-skill an existing workforce, keeping expertise within the business while plugging business-specific skills gaps. 

As we push to recover from the pandemic, greater visibility and access to apprenticeships would help address the digital skills crisis while supporting social mobility, helping those facing the greatest barriers to higher education achieve a degree without accumulating the associated debt. 

So how do we increase uptake of apprenticeships by young people? Better outreach and advocacy is the answer. Business, education, and government need to tackle this together head on by understanding and promoting the options available when it comes to apprenticeships. We must all take this seriously. Only by solving the challenge of skilled digital and tech talent can Scottish business build on its proud history of innovation and continue to be a leading light for the rest of the UK. Apprenticeships are a vital part of this puzzle.

QA is the UK’s leading digital and tech skills provider.

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