UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made headlines last week when he announced a crackdown on so-called ‘rip off’ university degrees.
These are courses that have high drop rates, and don’t lead to good jobs, thereby leaving young people with poor prospects and high debts.
Research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that while for 80% of young people going to university is a very good investment, one in five graduates would’ve been better off financially if they had not gone to university.
In light of these findings, the UK government is planning to boost its provisions for apprenticeships – Sunak commented: “This will help more young people to choose the path that is right to help them reach their potential and grow our economy.”
Part of this work will see the government make it easier for employers to take on apprentices – by cutting the number of steps needed to register an apprentice.
However, one employer that is far ahead of the curve, and has been offering apprenticeships to young people in the UK and beyond for over two decades is IBM.
In an exclusive interview with UNLEASH, Jenny Taylor MBE, leader of IBM UK’s its early professional programs (Foundation), shares the secret to success for the tech giant, commonly referred to as Big Blue. Plus why she thinks other employers should follow suit and reap the benefits of apprenticeships.
“Quality not quantity” is key to IBM apprenticeships
While IBM’s Foundation is all about recruiting and onboarding anyone at the early stages of their careers, apprenticeships are a major part of the program.
Around apprentices IBM has a no degree, no problem attitude. Rather than focusing on educational credentials, it aims to help close tech skills gap and attract diverse skilled talent into the tech sector.
They are upskilled on the job, with some actually doing a degree apprenticeship where they do a full degree alongside their job at IBM.
For Taylor, what makes IBM’s program standout, is that “they are permanent employees from day one” and “we focus on quality not quantity in our apprenticeships”.
This means that IBM does not take a set amount of apprenticeships every year – instead, Taylor and her team work with the rest of the business to look at workforce requirements, therefore ensuring the apprentices will have ongoing permanent positions at IBM.
That being said, in the UK, IBM usually takes around 100 a year, and the retention rate is 94%; much higher than the UK average of 53%. This means in the UK IBM only loses one or two apprentices a year.
Blue Blue also works hard to support its apprentices both during the recruitment process and beyond. “It can feel overwhelming joining a large company like IBM”, explains Taylor.
This is why apprentices have people managers who sit within Foundation, these individuals provide “pastoral care, and general HR activities”, and then they have a business manager who directs them in their day-to-day tasks in their apprenticeship.
IBM, diversity and apprenticeships
Diversity, equity and inclusion is of huge importance to IBM.
IBM is on a mission to create a culture of conscious inclusion – women made up 38% of IBM’s global workforce in 2022 (this is up from 27% in 2020), and 39% of new hires and 29% of executive leadership are female.
In addition, IBM has achieved complete pay equity, and has tied executive pay to company performance around diversity and inclusion.
Of course, the tech giant’s apprenticeship program plays a huge role in its diversity and inclusion commitments. In 2022, the tech committed $250 million in skills-first training, including apprenticeships and other early career programs.
Taylor shares that in the UK, “we are proud to have 50:50 male to female ratio”. IBM puts a lot of effort into ensuring its apprentices come from diverse backgrounds, not just in terms of gender, but also ethnicity and socio-economic background.
Taylor shares that Foundation works with “organizations to reach schools and communities that we don’t already have relationships with, it helps us find people from different backgrounds” – examples include Uptree, Pathway CTM and Success for Schools.
IBM and the business case for apprenticeships
Taylor is delighted by the huge success the Foundation program has achieved over the decades.
“A number of apprentices from our early cohorts are now in senior positions in IBM,” shares Taylor.
“We are very proud to have won a Prince Royal Training Award for our apprenticeship program” – IBM has won five times, in 2016, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 – winning this prize “involves a rigorous assessment involving senior stakeholders, our management team, and the apprentices themselves”.
“We won awards right from the start and haven’t lost our momentum – it’s definitely a sign of success that we continue to achieve external recognition”.
Taylor’s own MBE in 2022 was a result of her work in advocating for the power of apprenticeships.
“I have seen with own eyes not only the values apprentices bring to business, but what a brilliant start an apprenticeship is for anyone beginning a career”.
She is clear on the business case for apprenticeships at IBM.
“The return on investment is better than alternative entry points into the company. School leavers currently start on £22,000, and are very quickly doing client facing work, earning revenue for the company.”
Taylor continues: “We expect them to get their first promotion after three years” – this puts them on the “market salary for their job role: on a par with all other IBMers”.
She sees particular success for degree apprentices. She notes that when they graduate, “they are streets ahead of new graduates in terms of salary, skills and employability”.
This is no surprise as they have both educational and work experience, and they can quickly apply what they have learnt to their jobs at IBM.
Taylor is sure that other employers would reap the same benefits from apprenticeships. She calls on employers to “just go for it! Apprentices bring huge value to your business”.
For any companies that are unsure, she calls on them to reach out to IBM, as well as other employers with successful apprenticeship programs (examples include Nissan, BT and Rolls-Royce), and ask questions. “All you need to do is ask; there are so many people out there willing to help”.
The key to a successful program, for Taylor, is getting laser focused on that bottom line.
“You need to show the potential, and particularly the retention and the completion rates” – for IBM, these are 94% and 92% respectively – “these numbers provide convincing evidence” to the C-Suite, and continues to do so over-time for Taylor and her team at IBM.
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