Everyone is talking about the challenges of diversity and filling the skills gap that exists in the tech sector. The issue was magnified last week, when chancellor Philip Hammond announced his annual Budget to the House of Commons. His Autumn Statement focused heavily on the UK's technology capabilities - claiming that government would support the country's growth as it exits the EU.
The Budget outlined plans to invest in new technologies - including AI, 5G and broadband - and crucially, to create a plan to increase digital skills across the country.
The announcement was followed by the release of the Tech Talent Charter, a commitment by technology, media, telecoms and professional services employers in the UK to boost the diversity of their IT staff.
Over 300,000 have signed the Charter so far, but how will this truly change the status quo? It's an issue that many are desperately trying to address, but so many diversity initiatives and tech education programmes fail, even with the best of intentions.
Training the next generation of software engineers and IT specialists so it's diverse and reflective of the society we live in is going to take some support from government and businesses. The best courses are often too cost-prohibitive for most aspiring students or returning parents who want to consider a job in tech but can't imagine how they are going to pay for courses when childcare is so expensive.
Going down the student loan route is one answer, but the burden of debt puts off many people off. Also, having to work and train at the same time is problematic for most people who need to pay the bills.
A possible answer to the tech skills and diversity gap in the country is the Apprenticeship Levy, which was introduced in April 2017 by the UK government.
The levy stipulates that large organisations with an annual pay bill exceeding £3m are required to pay the levy at 0.5 per cent of those costs. This levy money is converted into digital vouchers, which can be spent on apprenticeship training courses offered by members of the Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers (RoATP).
Apprenticeship training courses have to meet certain criteria set in a standard, which must be ratified by the Institute for Apprenticeships (an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the Department for Education). Standards are generated by groups of at least 10 employers, which are called Trailblazer groups.
It sounds like a great deal - but why isn't it working? There was a 61 per cent drop in the number of people starting an apprenticeship in the UK. There have been complaints about the inflexibility of the programme and that big corporates don't want to be forced into having to hire apprentices. Government might want to work more closely with providers to understand which types of skills gaps and procurement problems are looming, but also to help smaller businesses with co-investment problems.
There should also be checks and balances in place so that the apprenticeship programmes on offer truly give people proper skills that will be useful to the employer and will provide proper career prospects.
Working with coding and software engineering schools that provide the training to plug the tech skills gap could also help to ensure that apprenticeships are truly effective for everyone. The catch is that the apprentices are also being paid a wage to be trained for those skills.
Makers Academy, for example, is in the process of registering to the RoATP so it can provide apprentices to employers within and without our current hiring partner network. We will be offering apprentices trained to the Level 4 Software Developer Standard as it meets the majority of employer needs, is flexible to adaptation, and approximates our existing training. Best of all, employers are getting the software engineers they need to grow their businesses.
We think other vocational schools should follow a similar model. It's a win-win situation for everyone. This is about giving employers the power to create the workforce that they need to make them successful - and that means establishing a diverse talent pool that will help the UK's tech sector grow and thrive.
Evgeny Shadchnev is co-founder and CEO of Makers Academy
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