School ICT suppliers can provide apprenticeships for students. Sally McKeown talks to Northgate
Northgate apprenticesL-R: Peter Couch (tutor), Muhammad Patel (apprentice), Julie Johnson (tutor), Angela Barker (apprentice), Sam Stringer (apprentice)Just imagine leaving school and starting work a few weeks later… back at school. That’s what happened to Conor Price, an apprentice customer service engineer at Soar Valley Community College.

He provides school ICT support four days a week and studies one day a week on an ICT apprenticeship scheme run by Northgate Managed Services. Apprenticeships are historically associated with craft and trade skills but now there are more than 130,000 apprenticeships in industries as diverse as telecoms, retail, finance, hairdressing, football and catering.  

Conor’s experience demonstrates that the apprenticeship principles of a carefully structured and delivered programme of learning and experience is now turning out high-quality employees in new skill areas, such as IT.

A big skills gap is emerging in the technology and telecom industries, so much so that it is estimated that more than 500,000 new entrants will be needed for the IT sector over the next five years. While some of these will be graduates, employers are increasingly turning to apprenticeships, training young people to fill specific skills gaps in their company.

'The attractions are obvious – pay and qualifications'

Schools such as Soar Valley are encouraging young people like Conor to look at apprenticeships as an alternative to university courses.  The attractions are obvious: apprentices are paid, get industry-relevant qualifications including a range of high-level NVQs and building up impressive CVs.

In particular, working in the ICT sector can be dynamic, stimulating, and rewarding, and you don’t necessarily need a degree to succeed, just show determination, drive and ability. ICT apprenticeships are proving to be an excellent entry point for school leavers to join a fast-growing sector and exceed at a promising and lucrative career with excellent long-term prospects.

Conor spends one day each week on a day-release course learning the theory and technical side and is working in a school providing ICT support for the rest of the week, constantly putting his learning into practice. He is gaining knowledge on specific systems and how they work in real-life situations.

His mentor, John Paul Shipp, shows him the way: "I teach him how to fix specific issues such as taking a laptop apart and replacing the screen, how to reset corrupted roamer profiles for users. I also train him on service-desk techniques – how to open and close calls, how to deal with customers' enquiries and techniques for diagnosing problems."

Apprentices like Conor will achieve an NVQ Level 3 ICT qualification through the local training provider. He will complete a personal learning and development plan which contains a mix of technical learning and soft-skill development and will finish the programme with a number of industry-recognised qualifications. Two examples include COMPTIA, a nationally recognised Computing Technology Industry Association qualification, and an Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) qualification which ensures he complies with a set of standards and practices for making sure that technical services meet the needs of the end users.

What's in it for the employer?

Apprenticeship schemes can form the backbone of a sustainable, valuable, qualified and talented workforce that can strengthen and grow a business. Employers who take on apprentices find that their workforce has the mix of practical skills and qualifications that an organisation needs, boosting productivity and promoting staff retention and loyalty.

Prime minister David Cameron has announced more Higher Apprenticeships and a scheme called AGE 16 to 24 (Apprenticeship Grant for Employers of 16 to 24-year-olds). The National Apprenticeship Service will provide up to 40,000 apprenticeship grants to small and medium-sized companies and an incentive of £1,500 for those which hire apprentices for the first time. 

What's in it for the apprentice?

For school leavers, there are many advantages to signing up for an apprenticeship. For a start they earn a wage and they work alongside experienced staff. E-skills has reported that apprentices earn on average £100,000 more over their working lives than those who only have A-Levels.

Often employers have methods and systems in place that let young people work at their own pace and get support just when they need it so they are more effective and gain qualifications faster. As they are essentially a part of a company, there are more opportunities for promotion, and young people have the opportunity to learn many soft skills too which can be used across a range of jobs and industries so they are more versatile and more likely to find future employment.

Matching apprentices to opportunities

Bill Trezise is Northgate's senior operational team lead for two authorities, Bolton, and Blackburn with Darwen. He was formerly technical manager in Crosshill Special School, and joined Northgate two years ago. He now interviews young people and makes sure that they are slotted into the right environment.  

Muhammad Patel (pictured above), is one of his apprentices. He joined Northgate in January 2011 so he is coming to the end of his 18-month stint. "I joined the apprenticeship scheme after going to college for a few months and deciding that learning in a classroom wasn’t for me," he said.

Muhammad believes that he has had a wider variety of practical experiences working for Northgate than he would if he had stayed at college. At the end of his apprenticeship he will have gained an NVQ Level 3 in IT Telecoms and Professionals. Northgate also provides an online learning portal and he has completed several courses and gained certificates.

He has been "earning while learning", has had invaluable hands-on experience of IT within a large-scale IT company and will come out with nationally recognised qualifications and no student debt. "I wanted to be in the real world working," he adds, "and the apprenticeship scheme with Northgate was just right for me. I am working, learning and earning. At this age, nothing could be better for me."

Supporting the apprentice

Bill Trezise is a strong advocate for apprenticeships. He believes that most young people are willing to learn, keen and enthusiastic. H explains: "Apprentices offer a much-needed additional set of hands around the school. Young students may feel uncomfortable asking teachers for help but they are not intimidated by technicians who are nearer their own age."

An apprenticeship is different from a regular contract of employment because the employer has a duty to develop and train the young person and improve their employability, so it is vital to establish a good fit between the school and the individual. He points out that many young people find that their communications skills improve dramatically as soon as they start working with people who are more experienced than themselves or who have a different set of values and expectations.

Even if Northgate is not able to offer them a permanent position at the end of their apprenticeship, apprentices will have a set of technical and communication skills which will enable them to go out and find work. "It’s not all about what they can do for us," said Bill Trezise, "It's about what they can achieve if we do it together."

So how did Conor feel about going back to school?. "It was a little strange at first," he said, "as some of the staff still saw me as a student and now, suddenly, I was one of their colleagues. But it is all a matter of being professional."

Conor will spend some time in the other schools in Leicester which Northgate provides IT services to, and in some of the feeder primary schools. "Apprenticeships are very exciting," he said. "You are always learning on the job and every day you get a different challenge. I would recommend an apprenticeship to anyone who is leaving school and encourage schools to promote this option when students are making decisions about their future."

Northgate Apprenticeships

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