Making the Connection

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Ray Snowdon, Business Development Consultant at PDS Group, an IT and telecoms apprenticeship consultancy, says that an apprenticeship model for the development of the next generation of telecoms professionals must surely be worth considering. 

Everyone is increasingly feeling the impact of technology within their work and personal lives. Today’s digital natives are being brought up in a world immersed in technology, a world where technology is truly ubiquitous. Yet, almost bizarrely, few of them take the time to understand how the technology actually works. Indeed, a more pertinent question may be do they actually care?

The plug’n’play generation do just that – if the socket fits why take the time to understand the ‘How and Why?’ Crashing devices aren’t a worry – they simply reboot and restart without any fears, or alternatively ‘trade-up’ to the next gadget flying off the shelf as part of their current contract. We’ve become attuned to the fact that simply switching off and switching on again is the accepted answer for many things technology.

They also quite happily accept any latest software upgrades without any real concerns or interest in what they actually offer, what they actually record and transmit bar the promises sold in flashy advertising. Big Brother now takes the form of a cookie monster that is blindly accepted as a tick box along with some T&Cs!

While their social lives increasingly depend upon their ‘best friend’ in the shape of the latest tablet PC or mobile handset, why do they rarely have less than a passing interest in understanding how all this technology actually works?

The future’s exciting? 

The telecoms industry is undoubtedly an exciting and dynamic environment and many exhibitors and presenters at telco conferences and exhibitions across the world offer an appetising insight into some of the next big things on the horizon, and more pragmatically some of today’s challenges for the industry. Surely some awareness could engage and inspire technology-savvy youngsters?

Working in a rapidly changing environment brings its own challenges, namely that keeping up to speed, or even better ahead of the curve, is increasingly more difficult. Arguably the mass adoption of the Web has proliferated technology capabilities but the learning required may not quite have caught up just yet.

Consequently the knowledge and the skills requirements for the next generation businesses are evolving. The industry has a significant complement of mature and capable professionals who have contributed to the development of the current infrastructure and capability, but who are now increasingly being required to learn new skills for the plethora of new platforms thereby becoming somewhat ‘newbies’ again themselves. This brings with it an almost inevitable ‘tipping point’ for the industry as the core workforce heads for the 50+ bracket.

Opportunity lost?

For a generation where the latest i-gadget, tablet PC and handset are sexy and exciting, at the top of many ‘wish lists’ and hot topics of conversation, there doesn’t appear to be an allure or appetite to engage in all things 4G as a career. Does every young person still believe that the Holy Grail lies in law, management, psychology, teaching or nursing?

Speaking with students, teachers and careers advisors over recent months highlights that there is undoubtedly some fascination with ‘app culture’, a couple of major technology brands and the notion of software development. I’ve little doubt that this is still the wider perception for Joe Public of the IT and Telecoms industry.

In spite of their widespread adoption few young people seem to have an interest in the businesses which manufacture the technology that lies in their hands or connects them to their digital world and supports the billions of daily transactions that their (virtual and real) social lives depend upon. Maybe if we took away their communication infrastructure we would get their attention?

Talent upgrade 

Lamentably few colleges or universities now deliver full telecoms-related qualifications, albeit several may include aspects of theory at a relatively high-level within a module or unit within their programmes. Nor is this in any way a failing of these institutions – education is big business, and customer demand influences supply which is simply not there – probably aligned with a lack of technical expertise and ‘champions’ within the institutions.

It would appear timely and essential that the knowledge and expertise within the industry is not wasted or worse still lost, but rather built-upon and maximised. While technology is evolving rapidly, understanding aspects of the past and the ‘here and now’ are an essential grounding for new recruits in the world of telecoms in order that they can grow and shape the future.

For generations many sectors of UK plc have readily embraced an apprenticeship model for recruiting and developing young talent – a good old’un with a good young’un transferring their wily ways along with their mastery. Given the combination of economic challenges faced by business and educational quandaries facing young people and their parents, there is a wealth of young talent waiting to be connected to a largely latent industry with invisible but highly tangible opportunities.

Businesses which have embraced apprenticeship opportunities have realised significant impacts, both in cultural terms and more importantly ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of their return-on-investment and bottom-line returns.

Taking your own medicine 

Like the technology itself, apprenticeships are evolving and provide a genuine opportunity for businesses to engage and grow their own talent. Innovative delivery models significantly reduce time out of the business for an apprentice enabling a stronger focus on work-based learning and removing the requirement for day release etc. thereby embracing the 70:20:10 training model.

Therefore it would be entirely logical to embrace and exploit features of the very technologies we want them to deploy by providing a learning experience in their language. Delivery utilising webinars, an assortment of web-based e-resources, assessment by e-portfolio, e-management of learners etc. are all easily realised and ensure platform independence for the majority of learners who are typically operating in a non-desk-based work environment. Delivering apprenticeships in this way enables the real advantages of apprenticeships to be more readily accessible to telecoms businesses, irrespective of size or geography.

Furthermore the range of telecoms apprenticeships, in terms of Intermediate, Advanced and Higher level, offer real flexibility for a business in the nature of the role that an apprentice can fulfil and the levels of knowledge and competence acquired during an apprenticeship programme.

Additionally, public funding can provide an element of financial support to kick-start any programme, although increasingly an employer contribution is required. That said, any recruitment of headcount should only be made on the basis of a sound business case, therefore some financial investment should not be unreasonable from a business perspective. While may be not a panacea or Silver Bullet, embracing and at least considering an apprenticeship model for the development of the next generation of telecoms professionals must surely be worth considering.

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