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Apprenticeships, study and skills development aren't just for the young

Marie Hendry, OU in Scotland Depute Director (External Engagement and Partnerships)Author: 

Marie Hendry is Depute Director for External Engagement and Partnerships at The Open University in Scotland.

This week marks the annual Scottish Apprenticeship Week, a recognition of all things work-based-learning and a celebration of the successes of the apprentices, employers and providers that contribute to the apprenticeship family in Scotland. 

With the Scottish Government target of 30,000 apprentices a year by 2020, there’s much to celebrate. However, there’s still much to ponder.

This year’s Scottish Apprenticeships Week theme is ‘Talent without limits.’ Its purpose is to demonstrate that opportunities are available to all, irrespective of background, age or experience. Opportunities that support businesses of all types and size and play a vital role in the Scottish economy. Its aim is to challenge the outdated notions of what constitutes an apprenticeship.

People seated round a table at a business meetingIt’s a theme that resonates with us in The Open University (OU) in Scotland, not only through our own growing number of Graduate Apprentices in Software Development and Cyber Security, but also through our 17,000+ students across Scotland, 75% of whom are in full or part-time employment.  

Each of them is developing the talents required to fulfil their career ambitions, upskilling to succeed in the technologically driven workplaces of the future.

Most of them are challenging their own limits, juggling study and work commitments, health and financial pressures with family and caring responsibilities. 

Many of them are challenging the limitations they have faced that have meant their talents haven’t yet been recognised.

Talent is everywhere.  Opportunity is not.

For example, the limitations placed on us by the narrative that study, apprenticeships and skills development are only for the young. That your ‘learner-journey’ stops when you leave a traditional university. 

Thankfully, this message is changing – through the Scottish Apprenticeship Week theme itself, challenging the stereotypical image of an apprenticeship. 

The Scottish Government’s Future Skills Action Plan and their Enterprise and Skills Board’s Strategic Plan both stress the need for lifelong-learning and for reskilling and upskilling to support Scotland’s productivity and skills gaps.  

Graduate Apprenticeships are a great example of lifelong, work-based learning that supports employers to upskill and reskill and helps employers ‘build their own’ skilled workforce.  

With no age limits, we see many employees taking advantage of the opportunity to reskill for a digital career with their current employer. 

Many of them have no previous qualifications, the OU in Scotland’s supported open access entry enabling them to take advantage of higher education for the first time, whilst continuing to earn while they learn. 

Others are upskilling, developing for example high level cyber skills through our Masters-level Apprenticeship in Cyber Security.  

We know that digital skills gaps are costing the Scottish economy. We recognise the need to ‘skills-up’ for the future and the fourth industrial revolution, but with the OU’s own Business Barometer 2019 report showing that skills gaps are costing Scottish businesses £360 million per year, or £17,000 each, the future is now. 

We still have some way to go, however. The OU’s recently published Leading In A Digital Age report revealed that nearly two thirds of UK business leaders tend to buy in the digital skills they need rather than training their own workforce. 

This may partly be explained by their own lack of understanding when it comes to digital leadership, with more than one in three leaders saying they are unsure where to start when it comes to developing their own digital skills. 

With Scotland having recognised management and leadership skills gaps and with current leaders unsure of what the digital future holds, the need to upskill our current and future leaders is paramount.  

The recent Upskilling Scotland report by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry’s Leadership and Skills Group (on which I represented the OU in Scotland), recognises these leadership skills gap and encourages universities and colleges to expand their offer of flexible, module and personalised learning opportunities. 

It’s a challenge we at the OU in Scotland support wholeheartedly. 

We are Scotland’s most popular university for flexible, online modular study and work-based learning and have recently launched new innovative ‘microcredentials’ to enable upskilling through bite-sized industry accredited qualifications.

Whilst Graduate Apprenticeships are funded through Skills Development Scotland and anyone earning up to £25,000 can study modules or qualifications free with the OU, Scotland needs to enable everyone who has potential talent, the opportunity to fulfil that potential. 

Financial limitations can prevent people from studying in later life and certainly limit small businesses and voluntary organisations from spending on training. 

Access to funding to enable people to develop their skills throughout their lives and careers is now urgently required. 

The Upskilling Scotland report calls on the Scottish Government to establish ‘an ambitious, universal and flexible upskilling and lifelong learning fund’. 

In Wales, the recent introduction of maintenance support for part-time students, giving them parity of esteem with full-time learners has seen a 50% increase in part-time students. 

Build it and they will come.

Let’s think big as a nation, remove those limitations to skills development and productivity and truly become a Scotland that develops all its ‘Talents without limits.’

The Open University offers Graduate Apprenticeships in Software Development and Cyber Security.

This blog was originally published by The Scotsman

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