By Dr Matthew Barr

THE skills gaps that hinder Scotland’s economic growth are well documented. As noted in the Scottish Government’s Future Skills Action Plan, a shortage of technical skills can delay the development of new products, services, and technologies. Such shortages are fundamentally a result of a misalignment between supply and demand: we lack people with the right sorts of skills.

This problem is particularly acute in the technology sector, where up to three-quarters of Scotland’s IT employers report difficulty in finding workers with the right skillsets. Whether through retraining existing staff or nurturing new talent, employers urgently require skilled software developers. Moreover, employers are eager to engage with a more diverse workforce, especially in the tech sector, where only 20 per cent of workers are women.

Graduate apprenticeships offer one solution, by providing learners with the opportunity to gain a university degree while simultaneously working for an employer. Designed with employers for employers, graduate apprenticeships are available across Scotland in a range of sectors with critical skills needs.

At the University of Glasgow, our Graduate Apprenticeship in Software Engineering builds upon the Skills Development Scotland framework for software development apprenticeships. Designed in close consultation with employers, this new approach to teaching computing science brings the discipline in line with other vocational subjects such as medicine.

As part of our year-long industry consultation, we determined what skills an apprentice software engineer would need to be productive from the outset. This required us to rethink the structure of a traditional computing science degree and develop an entirely new work-based curriculum.

Recognising that apprentices will encounter many different technologies, we concentrate on the underlying concepts required to pick up any programming language. As a result, our apprentices are ready to start contributing in the workplace before the end of their first year.

Later, our apprentices choose from a full range of computing science modules, aligned with their employer’s needs and their role within the organisation. We also offer specialisations in high demand areas including data science and cyber security. By the time they graduate, our apprentices will have an honours degree, four years of work experience, a detailed knowledge of the workplace, and an education tailored to their job.

Our graduates will be more diverse, too, with the apprenticeship attracting a healthier proportion of female students. Our female trailblazers encourage more women to take up software engineering, with several of our apprentices featuring as role models in events like the Ada Scotland Festival.

A work-based programme can also help widen participation in university-level computing science education more broadly. To this end, we work closely with employers and colleges to ensure that we can recognise a range of prior learning and experience when considering applications.

If we are to come back stronger from the economic damage inflicted by the pandemic, an appropriately skilled workforce is essential. Programmes like our Graduate Apprenticeship in Software Engineering will be critical in ensuring that employers have access to a pipeline of skilled, diverse, and experienced talent, both now and into the future.

Dr Matthew Barr is Programme Director for the Graduate Apprenticeship in Software Engineering at the University of Glasgow: