Specialist tech apprenticeships: the digital talent revolution (Guest Post)

benBen Rowland is the co-founder of Arch Apprentices, the UK’s leading digital and IT apprenticeship provider.

Here Ben explores the quiet talent revolution occurring across the digital media industry. A growing number of firms are recruiting from an entirely new source: school and college leavers. By recruiting them as apprentices, these firms are finding they can tailor-make employees who are a perfect fit for their day-to-day digital requirements.


ComputerThere is a widely acknowledged shortage of digital skills in the UK at the moment, with 23% of employers failing to fill their graduate digital roles in 2013. In particular, firms need to find, retain and nurture people with the skills to execute vital day-to-day digital tasks. By this, I mean tasks such as rapid creation of new landing pages, capturing, manipulating and deploying images and other assets, prototyping, monitoring social media mentions, running PPC campaigns and regular reporting on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

Firms have typically tried to do this in four ways:

  • Compete in the labour market: expensive, no reason to suppose that your expensive hire will stay with you when the next better offer comes along and from an industry view point a ‘zero sum game’.
  • Use contractors or outsource: expensive and builds no internal capacity.
  • Train up existing staff: often (but not always) good, however often expensive, not always sustained and often focused on management/leadership rather than day-to-day execution.
  • Graduate programmes and internships: hit and miss, grads often leave just as they become useful and rarely want to be that person who executes those vital day-to-day tasks for more than a few months.

talentHowever, a quiet talent revolution is emerging through a new, fifth, route. Agencies, advertisers and publishers, large and small, are now creating these skills from an entirely new source: school and college leavers who have not been to university. They are doing this in increasing numbers via specialist government-backed apprenticeship programmes.

IT hardware, software and web development apprenticeships have been around for a few years. But it was not until 2013 that a specialist apprenticeship in digital marketing was launched by the government (the work to develop this new apprenticeship was led by my firm, Arch Apprentices, working in partnership with other sector employers like Google and with the support of City & Guilds).

Even newer apprenticeships, for example in IT security and UX, are currently being developed and piloted. Employers are increasingly involved in shaping and promoting this new raft of apprenticeships which the government – and opposition parties – remain committed to supporting and subsidising, making it a highly cost-effective solution for HR directors and digital leaders wondering how to source their new wave of talent.

The firms at the vanguard of this quiet revolution include Google, Facebook, The Guardian, Barclays, Lloyds, ao.com, Hearst Magazines, Mindshare, Futureproof and M2M. These companies, and many others like them (over 150 different firms have worked with Arch Apprentices to take on and train apprentices), are using apprenticeships as a new way to create and nurture the skills they need.

ZeshanWhat do they get from apprentices that they don’t get from elsewhere?

Here’s what some employers have told us:

“We have been able to shape and ‘mould’ our apprentices from scratch.”

“Our apprentices are so eager to learn – they know they are right at the start of their journey so they listen to everything.”

“We haven’t had to ‘unteach’ them bad habits and unlike with quite a few of our graduates, we haven’t had to bring their expectations back to reality with a bump, because we’ve been the ones who have shaped their expectations.”

“Our apprentices relish executing the day-to-day tasks that are the vital lubricant in our business.”

“Our apprentices want to become experts in these technical tasks, rather than just tolerating them for a few months before the ‘real job’ begins – for them, this is the real job and they love it!”

Companies who want to join this quiet talent revolution need to do a few things:

  1. Get over the ‘graduate reflex’ where hirers assume that only someone with a degree can possibly be ‘good enough’ for the role, regardless of the degree or non-academic attributes of the person
  2. Amalgamate those vital and day-to-day tasks across your organisation into coherent and valuable job roles in which a young person fresh from school or college can excel
  3. Find a training partner(s) who is accredited to deliver the tech and digital marketing programmes you need, and who has the track record to give you confidence