Eleanor Bradley is the Interim CEO of Nominet.

Young people from all around the country went to collect their A-level results last month. After a difficult year, with sixth formers spending most of it in lockdown, many must have felt even more pressure than usual to do well. Top grades reached a level high this year with 45% of students getting top A-level grades, but this does not mean going to university is automatically the right next step for every student. 

School-leavers seeking university places this year have risen to a record number, with 44% of all 18-year-olds in England seeking a place – a 10% increase from 2020. It is great that young people are keen to expand their horizons and learn new skills, though there are many other ways to do this, including undertaking an apprenticeship.

The attraction of apprenticeships, combining on-the-job learning with gaining formal qualifications, should be clear, but according to the House of Commons library, there has been an 18% drop in take up since last year with 161,900 people starting apprenticeships in the first half of the 2020/21 academic year.

We need to change this trend and encourage more young people to undertake apprenticeships, especially if we’re going to close our emerging digital skills gap. 

Covid-19 has only increased our need for digital skills in the workforce, so finding ways to close the skills gap is essential, and highlighting how apprenticeships can enable individuals to future-proof their careers is one way to do this. The numbers speak for themselves; a recent report from Tech Nation uncovers how the need for software engineers outweighs the supply by 10 times – just one of many tangible skills that could be learnt through an apprenticeship.

An added attraction should also be the option to gain skills, and even degrees, without the costs associated with university tuition fees.

We need young people to realise the benefits of undertaking an apprenticeship, but we must also ensure there is a healthy range of apprenticeship options available. The Disconnected Report from World Skills UK reveals how the number of apprenticeships in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in England has remained flat in recent years. In 2017/18 there were 18,500 starters and that increased slightly to 21,100 in 2018/19 before falling back to 18,200 for the 2019/20 cohort. More could be done to expand the range of digitally-focused apprenticeships available to people, and continuing to bring tech companies on board will be integral. 

At Nominet, we have offered apprenticeships in Cybersecurity since 2017. By giving our apprentices an introductory grounding in the world of cybersecurity, they can begin to better understand the array of roles within the field and get real-life, hands-on experience to help them shape their ideas about their own careers. Their work helps us too and we gain ‘fresh eyes’ when solving difficult problems, challenging our processes and helping us innovate and improve our approach.

We are also partners with 01Founders on their new tuition free coding school. The school offers intensive two-year, on-campus fellowships, with students solving gamified projects at their own pace while learning from their peers. By removing the fees often associated with coding schools, the aim is to be a catalyst for greater diversity within the technology sector and help bridge the deepening UK skills shortage. On graduating, students are matched with partner companies or employed by the 01Founders talent agency as full-stack developers.

Moving forwards, we need to ensure the full range of options available to young people are clear, whether that’s university, an apprenticeship or one of the new approaches to learning that have emerged over recent years. And apprenticeships in particular provide the added benefit of allowing people to start earning while learning and gain hands-on experience to kickstart their career. The next step is encouraging young people to realise this is the case.

Eleanor Bradley is the Interim CEO of Nominet. 

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