Increasing IT Skills in the Scottish Highlands with The Apprentice Store

The Apprentice Store was created in 2016 in response to a shortage of people working in the IT sector across the UK. Located in Inverness we found that there was a major barrier for young people entering the workforce in the IT sector within the Highlands due to the size of businesses that operate in the region. 50% of employees in the Highlands work for businesses that operate with fewer than 50 employees, the average is 3.89 full time equivalents and these businesses equate to 93% of businesses in the area [1]. We found that, due to the number of small and micro businesses in the Highlands, training providers were struggling to identify employers who would employ young people on a full-time basis through the Modern Apprenticeship scheme offered by Skills Development Scotland within this sector.

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 As a Social Enterprise, The Apprentice Store aims to:

  • Assist in addressing the Scottish National gender imbalance of only 17% of employees in the IT sector being female [2].
  • Offer employment opportunities to young people from non-standard backgrounds for the sector by offering suitable training and mentoring skills.
  • Offer employment to socially excluded groups, long term unemployed, disabled and ex‑service personnel.
  • Work closely with agencies to offer real work experience to young people still at school or receiving support in preparing for work in addition to direct employment.

 We could have created the organisation as a traditional commercial business, rather than as a social enterprise but we felt that it would not fit the ethics of the business. The aim of the organisation is to encourage young people into the IT sector. Research has shown that young people do care about the ethics of the organisation they choose work for so strong social ethics needed to be core to our aims. We want our employees to live our ethics and ensure that every customer, partner, employee and work experience engagement is done in a responsible way. Whilst we offer commercial IT services to our customers, we do not wish to directly compete with other local IT providers where possible and have found that the social enterprise status assists with this.

The effect of this is that we do not see other IT providers as competitors as we want to work with them to allow them to grow their business through our apprentices. These businesses are a natural destination for our apprentices when they leave The Apprentice Store. Whilst we would love all of our apprentices to stay with us and to mentor the next generation e know that some will want to move on to another employer as part of their career development. We will fully support our apprentices to move to another employer if it is the right choice for them. Money is not always the key driver for young people; flexible working, training and a good working environment are all important to them.

We find that some people / organisations think we are a charity and as such are dependent upon government financial support but we are a proper commercial business and need to trade with a profit to be sustainable. The difference between us and a normal commercial business is that we do not have shareholders and do not pay dividends as we are not allowed to distribute profits, instead all of our profits are invested back into our young people.

Customers are choosing to work with us due to our social enterprise status and our associated aims. We have worked with a number of organisations to support young people to improve their employability skills in addition to giving them the experience of working in the IT sector. The bulk of our current engagements with young people are not girls due to the current stereotypes of the sector. However, we are working on changing this. We have to start somewhere, otherwise we will not change the demographics of the organisation or the sector.

We are a young business and we want to work with young people to help create the resources that employers look for by providing an environment that allows them to development their skills and we feel that being a social enterprise make a huge difference in how we are perceived. Here are some examples of how we do things differently:

  • We offer services like WebRoot anti virus and Microsoft Office 365 at a discounted rate compared to purchasing through other channels. Our USP is that if an organisation purchases these products through us, they save some money with all the profits going to our social aims rather than shareholders.
  • We offer remote technical support and really want to move away from  traditional “break fix” support. We help our apprentices develop skills to allow them to impart learned knowledge onto our clients staff so they can become more knowledgeable of the technology that they are using. This service is implemented to allow the apprentice access to an experienced mentor which ensures that our customers receive a good quality service whilst allowing the apprentice to develop across a broader range of skills.
  • We offer advice to businesses in achieving Cyber Essentials with our apprentices heavily involved in the customer experience. The delivery model allows our apprentices to engage closely with our customers and offer training, monitoring and advice to ensure that the business is continually meeting the needs of Cyber Essentials.

We have completed our first year of trading and are moving into a new office to support the planned expansion for 2018 by offering new services and more opportunities to young people to experience and work in the IT sector.

 [1] Scottish Government Businesses in Scotland 2016 Tables

[2] Scotland IS 2017 Business Review

Written by David Massey, Managing Director of the Apprentice Store

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"Increasing IT Skills in the Scottish Highlands with the Apprentice Store" First published on Company Connecting January 2018

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