With BT Modern Apprenticeships offering training, pay and security, it really is a no-brainer, writes Conor Wild

We can blame a certain TV show for selling the modern day apprentice as an ambitious city slicker in Saville Row stripes - a wannabe MD who comes armed with mantras such as: "There's no I in team ... but there are five in individual brilliance."

Thankfully, in the real world, today's apprentice is more likely to be a team player, focused entirely on learning new and transferable skills - while also enjoying the financial benefits and camaraderie of employment.

Equally true, in what has become a particularly challenging environment for young people across the UK, is that there are companies offering the kind of apprenticeship schemes that can help ensure the UK is not blighted by long-term unemployment among the younger generation.

BT's talent strategy, for example, has at its heart the firm belief apprenticeships are a mainstay in helping maintain and develop a highly skilled workforce.

Evidence of this came with news BT is to create 1000 new apprenticeships and graduate jobs this year. The new recruits will work in a wide range of specialisms, including software development, IT, engineering and digital technology.

In all, 700 apprenticeship and 300 graduate jobs will be created across the UK, with Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen set to be among the Scottish locations to benefit.

More than 30 engineering posts will be on offer in BT's local network business, Openreach, while others will be taken on in areas such as billing and security.

Among the Scottish locations to benefit will be Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. In addition, BT has also underlined its commitment to tackling youth unemployment by providing up to 1000 vocational training and work experience placements for out-of-work youngsters.

A number of BT's apprentices will also begin new Degree Apprenticeships, in a programme that kicks off in September, allowing them to complete Honours Degrees while working.

Director of BT Scotland, Brendan Dick, believes this strong focus on apprenticeships and training is fundamental to the future of the company.

"It is absolutely at the core of what we do and who we are," he says. "By the nature of our business we've always had apprentices, largely in engineering, but over time this has morphed into other areas, such as computer sciences and customer services.

"We've always seen high value in apprenticeships; there has been a scheme in place for more than 50 years. In fact, many of the senior managers in BT came through the apprentice route."

For Brendan, gaining an apprenticeship is not an end result, however, but the beginning of a much longer journey.

"Apprenticeships are seen as the heart of the business," he says, "but from a career point of view, something I emphasise to all of the apprentices I talk to - and I talk to many - is the world doesn't have to stop there.

"Depending on what they want to do and what their long-term aspirations are, and obviously how they perform, they might want to go on to Master degrees, PhDs or other qualifications."

While acknowledging engineering forms a major component of BT's apprenticeships structure, Brendan points out there are also many specialisms on offer that require learning an eclectic range of skill sets.

In fact, BT now offers programmes in Business Administration, Customer Service, Financial Services, HR, Management, Sales, Learning & Development, Power, Preparation for Life and Work, IT ICT and Telecoms.

Looking at the bigger picture for the jobs market, and the economy as a whole, are such skills easily transferable into other areas?

"Absolutely, yes!" says Brendan. "Good apprentices, apart from being technically competent, will also have learned how to be effective at work and can bring their knowledge and competence into many other areas.

"There are many people who are not in the engineering side of business any more but were once engineering apprentices; this is because shared skills can be introduced into other sectors.

"We have apprentices coming in now who, in about five years, will be able to become chartered accountants. They have never been to university full-time and, in a way, that's going back to how it used to work.

"We're getting back to a model that is more mixed, so some people will go to university but there are options within companies such as BT where you might want to do a finance apprenticeship and go on and become a qualified accountant."

As might be expected, with so much choice on offer, demand is high. Last year BT received 17,451 applications for apprenticeship vacancies for 559 jobs. This represents a 20 to 1 application to job ratio.

And with a five-year retention near to 90 per cent and satisfaction from the company's learner surveys sitting at just above 85 per cent, those who are successful in joining BT's schemes seem to be a happy bunch indeed.

For Chief Executive of Skills Development Scotland, Damien Yeates, such modern apprenticeships bring benefits to business, young people and adults, and Scotland's economy.

He notes: "BT are an excellent example of a company embracing modern apprenticeships to develop their workforce - not just in their core businesses but across the business as a whole.

"The skills developed through work-based learning are valued by employers and also by people looking to get the best possible start in their careers.

"The support for Scottish Apprenticeship Week [which this year takes place May 18-22] from industry and employers demonstrates the importance they place in developing their workforce and promoting apprenticeships."

Brendan Dick points out it is not only the apprentices and employers who reap rewards. He says: "If you have a more mixed economy of learning where there are more people going through apprenticeships, potentially up to degree standard, then from a financial point of view the burden on the state is a lot less than it is if we all end up going to university.

"As a company we are getting a committed set of young people and adults who want to work and who are highly articulate - people with a different view of the world, a different perspective."

Brendan suggests this is indicative of a shift in the UK, and possibly other countries as well, away from the assumption that to get on in life you have to move into full-time tertiary education.

"You don't," he says, "and so I think the more as a country we can do to steer ourselves towards this, the better.

"It's not to say one pathway is right and one wrong - it's what best suits the individual and their requirements - but having that mix of academia and on-the-job learning is invaluable."

While apprenticeship schemes such as BT's are attracting fresh talent, Scotland's ICT and Digital Technologies Skills Investment Plan, launched in March 2014, states: "Women are under-represented in ICT and digital technology occupations across the sectors in Scotland." It points out participation rates of females in the workforce has declined over a 10-year period to 2011 from 30 per cent to 17 per cent and the number of female acceptances on to ICT and digital technologies related higher education courses have tended to be significantly lower than for males.

So to what extent is any cultural shift toward hands-on training reflected in the number of women taking up apprenticeships; is there any sign of greater confidence among females to consider careers that use the so-called 'STEM' subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths?

"I think it is getting better," says Brendan. "The software industry is a good example, and obviously we bring in a lot of people to do that, as well as IT and engineering in the field.

"It is heading in the right direction but I think we all need to work very hard at it, to be honest.

"If we stick with the old accepted way of thinking, where sectors are seen as male-dominated - without any positive input from parents and teachers at an early age of children's development - we're simply cutting ourselves off from a rich pool of talent.

"If we're not looking at that talent pool at a 100 per cent level, we're not doing our job right.

"We need to maximise the potential of female talent in these areas. How do you that? Partly it is about industry working harder with the government to help create the right understanding that there are fantastic careers in STEM subjects for males and females - and secondly recognising the fact females are equally competent at doing them, indeed are better in some areas.

'I thought women couldn't be engineers'

With Scottish Government research suggesting Scotland has a shortage of female engineers, BT is keen to bring more women into such roles. It runs a rolling recruitment programme, with female apprentices taken on in all areas of the business. Here we meet two female apprentices who are proving that science, engineering and technology roles are not just for the boys.

Lyndsay's story:

Lyndsay Waugh, 24, gave up a her first career as a nursery nurse to join BT as an apprentice software engineer. Based in Erskine, she says: "I was interested in physics, music and maths at school and was fascinated with technology but I thought that females couldn't be engineers.

"I loved working as a nursery nurse but I wanted more of a challenge and to learn something new. For me the BT Apprenticeship Scheme was an amazing opportunity as it allowed me to work full-time as well as study for my degree.I was nervous that my application wouldn't be considered as I thought I was older than most apprentices and I had no software engineering experience.

"The interviewers could see past this and focused on my skills that could be used in the workplace rather than knowledge that could be learned later. Changing career has been an amazing stepping stone. It's okay, if you make the wrong career decision when you leave school. There are always other possibilities."

Rebecca's story:

Rebecca Watt, 24, from Erskine, worked as a qualified beauty therapist before applying for BT's engineering apprenticeship scheme. Following classroom and on-the-job training Rebecca now climbs ladders and poles to install and repair phone lines, broadband and BT TV services.

She points out: "My friends couldn't believe it when I told them what I'd be doing. I got some cheeky comments from people but now they're all impressed with what I've achieved."

Rebecca's original boss, Katrina O'Donnell, also previously a BT apprentice engineer, notes there are areas where a female touch is an asset. She says: "Teenage girls often have good communications skills, which go down well when you are dealing direct with the public."

Discover 60 jobs

BT's recruitment drive of apprentices across the UK is going to be welcome news for Dundee this year.

Around 30 new apprenticeships are expected to be created in the City of Discovery at BT's customer service centre in Telephone House.

The facility in Ward Road is the base for BT's biggest customer service centres in Scotland, employing customer service advisers and managers who handle more than 32,500 enquiries a day.

The customer service apprentices will be part of a rapidly developing operation that deals with a wide range of issues, including enquiries about BT Sport, superfast fibre broadband and mobile communications.

What's on offer?

BT's apprenticeship programmes range between 18 months and four years, depending on the type of qualifications and skilling area.

Advanced and Higher apprenticeships are offered. The Highers are level 4/5 programmes and provide a direct alternative to university study.

Foundation degrees can also be supplemented by further study to a full honours degree qualification.

A competency-based qualification provides evidence that an apprentice is able to apply their learning directly in the workplace.

For more information or to make an application check www.bt.com/apprentices

Did you know ?

There are more than 80 different types of Modern Apprenticeships on offer across Scotland.

A total of 5,000 new Modern Apprenticeship places are offered each year.

There are around 35,000 Modern Apprentices currently in training.

The top sectors for employing Apprentices are in construction and related industries as well as hospitality and tourism, retail and customer services, sport, health and social care.

Figures courtesy of Skills Development Scotland