Tech Partnership official says public sector can help to narrow digital skills gap with more apprenticeships
Public authorities can make more use of apprenticeships to promote the growth of digital skills, and there is a credible business case in doing so, according to the policy manager of Tech Partnership.
John Cox was speaking to UKAuthority on the publication of a survey for 2015 from the employers' organisation to promote digital skills. It highlights a "skills gap" in the workforce that is affecting public and private sector organisations, with employers identifying a shortfall in the skills available against those they need.
Tech Partnership has picked up from e-Skills UK - from which it has taken over some of its functions - in emphasising the potential of apprenticeships to raise IT skills. Cox said the public sector has made a worthwhile contribution, with 26% of organisations having sponsored technology apprentices at some time - much higher than the average of 5% - and 7% having done so in the past 12 months, but that it could do more.
"We think the public sector is doing a lot of good things already, particularly in terms of hiring young people and apprenticeships," he said. "We would encourage it to continue and lend expertise when necessary.
"The public sector operates on a tight budget, and many businesses have genuine expertise in delivering skills and upskilling tech staff, and one of the things we're keen to do is work with other organisations - government organisations, colleges, apprenticeship providers - to lend the expertise and develop the skills."
He highlighted an initiative announced late last year that makes it possible to study for IT degrees while serving apprenticeships, saying that HM Revenue & Customs is among the organisations to have made a commitment.
"HMRC are fully onboard and a big partner for the Tech Partnership, so there's recognition at a relatively high level," he said. "Beyond that there's the trickle down effect of when the public sector sees the benefit it will be pretty much a no brainer that it will be a good thing in the long run."
A significant, and obvious barrier to this is that such initiatives require investments on which it might be difficult to prove a return. But Cox claimed there is a strong business case to spend on apprenticeships and training.
"One of the things we see about upskilling in tech is that it has an established economic benefit. Yes there is an investment to be made, but the average net benefit to an organisation of having an apprentice is something like £2,000 over the course of a year. As that builds up across the economy it is quite a big thing.
"Likewise investing in training, where upskilling people from a gap in their skills to being proficient at what they do can deliver about £9,000 per year per person. So while there is an expense in doing it, there are long term financial benefits, and for the public sector that comes not in profit but efficiency savings. There's certainly a business case behind it."
He also emphasised the importance of ensuring that apprenticeships meet the quality demands defined by employers, one of the areas in which Tech Partnership is active.
The report, compiled from a survey of more than 1,600 employers over the summer of last year, shows that public sector organisations are feeling the squeeze more than most. Their average time to recruit a "hard-to-fill" tech position was 73 days compared with an average of 61, and surpassed only by financial services and the technology industry itself.
Similarly, 55% reported that they were missing some skills that they needed, compared with 50% for all sectors.
But the public sector was doing better than most in recruiting technology specialists, with 19% of its organisations having done so in the previous year, compared with the average of just 5%. It was also finding that just 16% of its specialist jobs were proving hard to fill, while the average for all sectors was 42%.
Cox says that as organisations see the potential for new technologies the outlook is very challenging, but that the public sector has been making efforts to meet the demand.
"One of the biggest things has been the sheer growth of the public sector job tech workforce, with something like 167,000 working in the sector," he says. "That grew by 5% in the last quarter of last year and about 12% over the past 12 months.
Keeping up with the demand for new tech specialists in incredibly challenging, and the public sector is the most likely to be recruiting at junior level positions."
The report also provides evidence that the public sector is leading on the adoption of some strategic technologies. A higher proportion of its organisations had adopted high level cyber security systems (83%) and big data analytics (15%) than any of the other sectors, even technology firms.
"The public sector has to be very careful about the way it uses its computer systems, and cyber security is no longer an option in many sense, and the public sector recognises that more than most," Cox says, adding: "Big data is a very valuable tool for the public sector in focusing its activity and getting the best value our of what it does."
Cox has also cast his eye on the political landscape, blogging a round-up of the where the party manifestos stand on skills and education. It is a neutral perspective, but he did call for whoever wins the election to take issue seriously once in power.
"It is critical that this continues post-election, prioritising the digital economy and digital skills in order to support business growth across all sectors of the economy," he said.
Image: Gflores, public domain through Wikimedia