Back in July 2019, tech start-up WhiteHat announced it had secured $16 million in venture capitalist funding. Nothing surprising about that, you might say. Tech start-ups get funding like that all the time. 

Not your average tech start-up

However, WhiteHat is not your standard tech start-up. In fact, it may not be entirely correct to call it a tech company, although it has some cutting-edge technology at its fingertips, and works with a lot of big names from the industry, including Salesforce and Facebook. WhiteHat is an apprenticeship company. It matches young people aged 16 to 23 with apprenticeship opportunities, many of them in the technology sector. It also provides the training for the apprentice, by partnering with high-quality content providers, and also providing one-to-one coaching. 

This is, in its own way, a quiet revolution. WhiteHat itself points out that most apprentices are currently over 24, which often means that they already have degrees. WhiteHat is targeting a different group: school and college leavers, those without degrees who do not wish to incur a student debt, but instead start working and earning straightaway—while still learning and developing new skills. In other words, these new-style apprenticeships are no ‘dead-end’ jobs. They are simply about starting work at an earlier point in your educational career. 

This is happening now, and particularly among start-ups, as a result of a combination of two factors. The first of these is that WhiteHat provides all the training and coaching. The second is the Apprenticeship Levy, a tax payable by any UK firm with a pay bill of more than £3 million. That levy can be used by the firms to fund training for apprentices, including—and this is the key point for start-ups—in other firms in their supply chain. In other words, with the agreement of its larger partners, a small start-up can use some of its partners’ levy funding to fund apprentices.

Re-imagining apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have been around for a long time. However, the focus in this latest iteration has subtly changed. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, apprenticeships were often seen as a way to reduce the number of young people not in education, employment or training. They frequently felt like a job-creation scheme, usually aimed at young people with no other options.

Now, though, there is a very different vision. There is general agreement that there is a fundamental shortage of key skills, especially in the tech sector. There is also general agreement that we need more diversity in the tech sector. Apprenticeships are seen as (at least part of) the answer to both these problems. 

Training on the job means that apprentices learn the skills that they really need, and get to apply them immediately. WhiteHat claims that the quality of its training, coupled with the calibre of the  companies providing apprenticeships, means that its apprentices get training that can genuinely be compared to a degree for the quality of the learning experience. Learning on the job is key to developing real-world skills, rather than a theoretical understanding—we all know that we have learned far more since we left formal education than within the walls of schools and colleges.

WhiteHat also notes that its school-leaver apprentices are significantly more diverse than graduates. Over half (65%) are non-white, and around 50% are on free school meals. More diverse teams are known to perform better because they bring together more views, opinions, and experiences. 

Into the future

Apprenticeships may have traditionally been provided by companies, but third sector organisations are increasingly getting involved. A new initiative run by international development network Bond, together with WhiteHat, is designed to improve diversity and skills in the third sector. Many charities currently look for qualifications, particularly degrees, and volunteering experience when recruiting. This inevitably favours richer candidates. Apprenticeships offer the opportunity to broaden recruitment. At present, of course, only the biggest charities will be able to hire apprentices, because only they are subject to the levy, but WhiteHat has said that it eventually hopes to find a corporate sponsor to help smaller NGOs.

There is a general sense that the world of work is changing. It is good to see traditional concepts like apprenticeships being shaken up and brought into the future—and it is particularly good to see them applied in sectors with skills shortages. Sometimes the answer to your problems is hidden in plain sight. 

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

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