You may or not have known this, but last week was National Apprenticeship Week 2023 so I am going to give you my views on the current state of apprenticeships in cyber security, as well as apprenticeships in general (and just so we are clear, these are my personal observations as I see them and I accept I am by no means an expert in this field!)
So let’s start with the positives…I love apprenticeships. I really do! I think they are a fantastic way to get youngsters into the workplace whilst helping them to develop the necessary technical, soft and life skills required for their chosen industry. The experience gained from these placements can massively empower young adults. And with the right mentorship, I genuinely believe that apprenticeships can create reliable, resilient and productive members of both society and the community at large. And not to mention that those who successfully complete their apprenticeship will enter the workforce with the best possible start, fully trained and confident in their role – again, assuming capable mentorship.
What am I basing my views on you may ask? Well, we at Fortified IT are about to take on our 3rd apprentice in just over a year. So I have seen the benefits apprenticeships in cyber security bring to both the student and employer first-hand, and from our experiences, I have nothing but positives to say about how effective apprenticeships can be when conducted properly.
The challenges facing apprenticeships in cyber security and the job market as a whole
However, apprenticeships definitely have their own unique challenges…None of which are insignificant in either nature or scale. Through my own personal experiences, I have noticed that the attitude of the Government and the education system towards apprenticeships is vastly different compared with other forms of higher education, such as universities.
So in an effort to air some of my concerns, learn of those of other small businesses, and find out what is being done to address them, I attended an FSB event hosted by Harlow College last Friday, 10th February. In attendance was Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow and Minister of State at the Department for Education. I spoke with him about how to improve the take-up of apprenticeships in cyber security (and the job market at large) among both students and employers as part of National Apprenticeship Week.
What did I discover in this meeting? The first issue raised was that schools and colleges need to do better at both raising awareness of, and encouraging, apprenticeships as an excellent start to a young person’s life and journey of ongoing self-development. Something that was a shock to me was the revelation that colleges are rewarded for students who go on to enrol at a university, whereas there is no such incentive for recommending apprenticeships. There was an immediate argument to this that nothing would change whilst this obvious incentive imbalance remained, and that it should either be offered for both apprenticeships and university, or neither.
The point was made that at a recent 45-minute long parents’ evening, approximately 40 minutes of this time was spent encouraging university, with the route of apprenticeships given just a passing mention. Incidentally, my own son was told by one of his teachers that apprenticeships are more suited to those who won’t do as well on their GCSEs, and are therefore unlikely to secure decent results at college and go on to university. This in my mind borders on insanity, as not every student is geared towards that level of higher education, nor does every student need to be. Why does every student need to aim for university? Whilst gaining a relevant degree is a huge advantage in many industries, there are still many job roles where experience and on-the-job learning are preferable to employers, with many roles in the technology sector amongst them. With technology moving at such a rapid rate, knowledge learned over 3 years at university may well be redundant by the time they approach the job market, yet the student still has (potentially) tens of thousands of pounds worth of debt for their trouble.
In my opinion, training content needs to be relevant and, ideally, delivered (at least in part) by those with real-world experience in the subject matter at hand. I brought this up at the meeting and the response was that it is tough enough as it is to recruit teaching staff, let alone those with commercial backgrounds or experience. When chatting after the meeting, more than one person agreed that their Year 7/8 children already knew far more about computing than their own teachers and that their kids would laugh at the teacher’s lack of basic knowledge (which is not a good look… 😬)
Is there a better way?
Why not offer shorter-term apprenticeships in cyber security or other fields which offer more specific/targeted training that would be more attractive to businesses? Well, Robert Halfon MP made it clear that this wouldn’t happen, for fear it would leave the scheme open to abuse. I can’t say I fully understand this rationale so, I’ve asked Mr Halfon for further clarification on that one. That aside, there were many more great insights and ideas that came out of the discussion, so it’s now up to Mr Halfon and the Department for Education to make the necessary improvements that will make apprenticeships more visible for students and more attractive for employers.
I can’t say I came away from this meeting filled with confidence, but I do believe that it’s important for real businesses to be in the room for these types of discussions so that those who are responsible for making policy are informed by those who actually see the real-world effects, rather than simply interpreting cold statistics (which often only tell a fraction of the true story).
But you know what they say; if you don’t like it, change it. And if you can’t change it, then influence it. It was with this in mind I attended this meeting, allowing me to connect with the people responsible for developing, promoting and delivering apprenticeship schemes across the UK, and specifically apprenticeships in cyber security and technology as an industry. I will be exercising whatever influence I can to ensure students complete a technology-focused apprenticeship, and hopefully become sought-after candidates in the job market as a result.
“So, do I encourage my child to enrol in an apprenticeship?”, I hear you ask.
Yes… Absolutely! Despite the shortcomings of a scheme woefully outdated for the modern technology landscape, I firmly believe apprenticeships are fantastic for apprentices, though not so much for businesses. If you can find a willing employer, grab the opportunity with both hands. Assuming they’re not complete muppets and provide a genuinely supportive environment with effective mentorship, your child will likely thrive on the hands-on exposure to real-world problems and solutions, whilst learning valuable skills around managing their money and the dynamics of building and maintaining working relationships.
Skills which will serve them well throughout their lives… Skill-up to move up ✊🏻