Engineering great engineers – how to grow young talent through apprenticeships

Kevin Smith
on 25 April 2016

I once read somewhere that people often miss great opportunities because they’re disguised in blue overalls and look like work. I have found this to be true time and time again.

Investing in people is good. Training and nurturing young talent is good. Ensuring your business has access to the skills it needs in a competitive market…well thats just common sense. The trouble is, doing any of these things well is going to take a bit of work. But now is the time to make sure you don’t miss the opportunity.

It’s harder than ever to hire good graduates

When we started out several years ago we hired the best team we could. We took people with 5-10 years of experience and we created a crack team that could deliver well and deliver consistently. But as we continued to grow we found it increasingly hard to hire younger talent. Right now, many software organisations are facing similar issues here in the UK.

Graduates are woefully under-prepared to enter todays job market. Sandwich courses have dried up over the years due, in part, to protectionism over the now huge tuition fees that young people are expected to stump up. Despite paying more for their education than ever before, and living in a time where jobs are harder to find than ever before, many university leavers have no real world experience at all.

Investing in young people is not optional

All of this means you now have to invest more in your graduate training programs and you are less likely to find people with the actual skills you need, despite still paying the graduate premium. You are going to need to invest more in training and nurturing your talent anyway…so maybe it’s time to look again at apprenticeships?

I won’t lie. I’m a bit of a degree snob. I probably have a bias towards the ‘pure’ engineering degrees like Computer Science and Maths. I want to know that people understand the theory as well as the practice.

For years I thought it would be impossible to train a software engineer on an apprenticeship; a small to medium sized enterprise surely wouldn’t be able to find the resources to train someone to degree level? I still think that back then I was right. But the world moves on…

There are some really great online training resources

Today there are some very good on-line learning institutions. The rise of websites like Udemy, Udacity and Codecademy have opened up a wealth of new opportunities. Udacity in particular is a great resource, backed by the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon. They provide paid training and tutorship, at a fraction of the price of a degree, and teach stuff that you actually want your just-starting-out developers to know.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that their Introduction to Computer Science course started out with an explanation of syntax, grammar and Backus-Naur Form. Even more so to find that at the end of it, the never before programmer would have learnt how to code and built the basics of a social networking engine.

Fixing the university skills gap

Fast forward to today and we have launched our full on assault on the skills gap. We’re not content to leave it solely up to universities to educate our future engineers. We’re not happy that students are giving up on university because they are struggling to afford the tuition fees…and actually, we really want to use our passion and our expertise to give something back. We want to invest in young people.

The way we have decided to do it means that yes, there is a time investment, and yes it does take some work to setup but also…yes!, this is manageable for a small to medium sized enterprise.

How we run the Dootrix university apprenticeship scheme

Each student spends approximately half of their time working with the designers, developers, project managers and testers on real projects. They take part in the scrum meetings, they meet with clients, they input into planning meetings and they add real value, primarily by joining the test team. If they did nothing other than this, they would be valued and experienced software testers after just a year. But there’s more.

We have managed to build a program based around the courses on Udacity…and thrown in a few of our own for good measure. The other half of their time is spent working through this material. We supplement these courses with our own technical challenges to help cement their learning. This has proved invaluable, as often the course material on its own is not quite enough; opportunities to put things into practice are key. We follow up after each technical challenge with several one-on-one reviews and coaching sessions. This really helps to refine and improve their understanding and skill.

During the second year they will specialise. They may want to do more front end web development, they may want to become a mobile application developer, they may want to build the next instagram! This is where the nano degrees come in. They will continue to help out with next years intake, and facilitate the test team, but they will devote much more of their time to acquiring their Google backed nano degree. We hope that these qualifications will start to gain industry recognition over the next couple of years.

Engineering the future

Of course we want them to stay with us at the end of it all. Thats a big part of why we are doing what we are doing. We hope that they will, and that we will always be in a position to offer them a role at the end of their apprenticeship. But it’s not just about that. We want these young people to come away with genuine skills and qualifications and to have created a bunch of super engineers along the way.

It’s early days yet. But I’m betting that in a years time we are going to have our first home grown graduates. Graduates that are highly skilled, highly motivated, client facing and debt free.

If you’d like to find out more about our apprenticeship scheme, or know someone who might be interested, please check out our dootrix university page here.


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