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Avoiding a digital skills crash course

Public sector apprenticeships: avoiding a digital skills crash course

Eugene O’Driscoll, Agilisys, and Ben Rowland at Arch Apprentices, explain why the public sector should embrace apprenticeships to attract, harness and develop digital skills

In an atmosphere of austerity, public sector organisations should be leading by example on digital transformation. Today, there’s a revolutionary opportunity to improve citizen services while simultaneously driving cost-savings. However, turning this potential into reality demands scarce digital expertise.

Today, two-fifths (40%) of public sector organisations lack the skills to deliver on digital transformation. Meanwhile, almost a quarter (24%) see a shortage of in-house expertise as a major stumbling block to future-ready IT models, such as the cloud.

As a result, public sector organisations can become locked into a vicious cycle: without the skills to drive transformation, they fall behind on IT innovation—making them less able to attract and retain digital talent in the future.

The Government’s new Apprenticeship Levy, announced just over a year ago, offers a crucial opportunity to break this cycle, enabling organisations to leap into the future by supercharging their investment in digital skills. Launched in April 2017, this major shake-up required UK businesses with annual wage bills of over £3m to pay 0.5% of their payroll cost into a training fund. The Levy was even more significant for public sector organisations, with those employing more than 250 people required to have at least 2.3% of staff start an apprenticeship each year.

One year on, the public sector is still getting to grips with the Levy’s repercussions. While the initiative certainly has the potential to upskill the UK’s workforce and fuel economic growth over the long-term, it also means staff spending more time away from work today—with knock-on implications for recruitment, salaries and more. The service has also been criticised for its complexity, with many commentators calling for more clarity and flexibility.

However, with more than 20,000 businesses paying into the Levy and some £1.39bn already raised, there’s no doubt public sector organisations should be capitalising on the fund to develop much-needed digital skills. To deliver tangible returns, the Levy’s costs must be converted into professional-grade training.

By driving investment into relevant and essential skills linked to serious career paths, the Levy can erode the perception of apprenticeships as ‘lightweight’ qualifications—particularly in comparison to university education. With fully accredited programmes now available at up to the equivalent of a master’s degree, apprenticeships could become the gold standard for qualifications—not just inside work, but across all higher education.

The opportunity to start work straight out of school and receive on the job training without getting into debt is understandably appealing to the next generation. However, apprenticeships aren’t only for new employees. Organisations can also draw upon the Levy to upskill or retrain existing staff, with a wealth of programmes available for every skill level and age group.

With professional providers offering recognised accreditations across a myriad of different disciplines, public sector organisations can also harness apprenticeships to train staff to meet their specific requirements for digital transformation.

Today, we’re partnering with many local authorities to harness the Apprenticeship Levy and address the digital skills gap. For instance, we’re hosting training workshops with the City of London Corporation to drive digital inclusion, as well as creating work experience placements for 14 to 18-year olds attending academies in the capital’s inner-city boroughs. We’re also helping the public sector build the digital workforce of tomorrow, today—providing high-quality apprenticeships spanning a huge variety of skillsets, including digital, IT and data.

When it comes to harnessing the skills essential to digital transformation we believe apprenticeships are the right path for the public sector — not a crash course.