Lawrence Jones MBE, CEO, UKFast
Lawrence Jones MBE, CEO, UKFast

The academic year is getting underway, with students all over the country settling in to their first weeks away from home. However, it's important to remember that university is no longer the default option for school leavers, as more and more young people are coming straight into the workplace through apprenticeships.

It surprises me that not going to university is still considered to be an inferior option by many. Although I wouldn't stop anyone from achieving their academic ambitions, I have a great deal of respect for those young people who, at a relatively young age, commit to joining a company as an apprentice. I believe an apprenticeship can be the fastest way of getting you several steps up the career ladder, as long as you pick the right one.

I never went to university and it's not a requirement I expect from everyone joining my team. In fact, just over half of our team have a degree. What we all have in common, however, are shared values and the ambition to grow and learn.

Since launching our apprenticeship scheme back in 2013, we've seen a 100 percent employment rate upon completion of the programme and some of our technical apprentices are now managing support for some of our biggest clients, working as Linux engineers, solutions architects or pen testers.

At the start of this calendar year, we employed 26 apprentices in one day, doubling our original intake plan for the year.

We don't take on this number of apprentices simply to grow our own team. It's also about helping to develop the next generation of technical engineers and innovators, as I believe this is part of our business responsibility. Whilst the government is pushing for more apprenticeships, it is ultimately left to business leaders to provide workplaces and programmes that lead into a career path that offers young people amazing opportunities.

Today, 15 percent of our workforce is made up of apprentices. This clearly demonstrates our investment in the future talent of our business and shows our commitment to helping the government reach their target of three million apprentices by 2020.

We are now a Top 100 Apprentice Employer and a National Apprenticeship Service Ambassador. These are accolades I'm very proud of, but it has taken a lot of hard work to get here.

We have a team of five in-house teachers to help us ensure our apprenticeship programme offers great value for everyone involved. Our apprentices do pretty much everything but making cups of tea. They work while they learn and we see most apprentices working as part of their relevant team within three months, dealing with real customers and making a real difference.

I think many business leaders don't realise just how academic apprenticeships are. They are not as vocational as is often made out and businesses have to be committed to invest a lot of time and effort.

I understand that not many companies have the ability to deliver an employment-ready curriculum to their apprentices, but there are other ways of adding value. At the end of the day, the real education comes from people in all parts of the business getting involved with training and sharing their incredible expertise on the work floor, not just the classroom.

The type of learning offered by a good apprenticeship is a great way of bridging the gap between school and the workplace, whilst helping young people develop soft and transferable skills at the same time. The ‘earn while you learn' model of apprenticeships is obviously extremely attractive to students, as they avoid up to £50,000 in debt.

In my opinion, universities will have to work very hard to compete with some of the amazing benefits apprenticeships offer. On the other hand, the trend of more young people looking for more direct routes into the workplace offers an amazing opportunity for the tech industry to strike the right balance between university graduates and school leavers joining the workforce. It's no secret that our industry faces a skills gap and ensuring we stay diverse and flexible will help us stay one step ahead of the curve.

Contributed by Lawrence Jones MBE, CEO, UKFast