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IBM: Strengthening the ladder of opportunity

Chris at his desk at IBM

Chris Cocklin has one apprenticeship under his belt and is now on his second – a Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship through The Open University (OU). And he has recently been nominated for a British Computer Society Apprentice of the Year award.

A software engineer at IBM, Chris is on what the company calls ‘the ladder of opportunity’, whereby employees are encouraged to take more than one apprenticeship to progress their learning and career trajectory.

Tackling skills challenges

Being a technology and consulting company, it is essential that IBM has a workforce with both strong digital and strong people skills. But there is an acute shortage of digital skills in the UK, particularly in business-critical areas such as AI, cybersecurity and data analytics. Because of this, the company has a policy of building a strong internal talent pipeline as much as possible, particularly through apprenticeships. When recruiting, IBM is more interested in a candidate’s potential and their soft skills than their existing technical skills. “Our solution is to build our own talent, to some extent,” says John Griffin, Learning and Development Leader for Early Professionals at IBM. “We can bring people in with little to no technical skills and train them.” This approach also helps the organisation reach a wider talent pool.

What’s important to IBM is that employees have a growth mindset and are willing to learn. The IT skills can be taught and honed through the apprenticeship, with employees learning the theory and the practical at the same time. “They can immediately apply what they’re learning on the apprenticeship and see how it actually works in business,” says John. “That ability to learn through the academic route and immediately apply it to project work is fantastic.”

Enabling the ladder of opportunity

IBM and the OU have an established partnership going back several years, with the OU offering several apprenticeship pathways to IBM employees – the Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeship, the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship and the Senior Leader Apprenticeship, with the Systems Thinking Practitioner Apprenticeship, recently added to the offering. “The OU plays a key part in that ladder of opportunity,” says John.

Chris joined IBM on a software Level 4 apprenticeship in 2019. He achieved three A-Levels at college, but didn’t quite get the grades he wanted, so he went travelling for a year around Australia. When he returned from his travels, he decided he didn’t want to pursue the traditional university route so he applied to the IBM apprenticeship programme instead, attracted by the ability to earn and learn at the same time, with the tuition costs paid-for via the apprenticeship levy.

Since then his career has progressed swiftly – he has transitioned to a different part of the business, achieved a promotion, submitted several patents, taken on more responsibility and helps mentor colleagues. And in September 2022, he started on his degree-level apprenticeship with the OU. “Just like the first apprenticeship, it seemed like such a good deal to me,” he says. “You get a full salary, at least one day off a week to work on the apprenticeship and you learn all these different technologies that you wouldn’t normally be exposed to in your day role.”

Broadening horizons

In his role as a software engineer, Chris does regular coding and testing work, but he wanted the opportunity to learn about areas such as web technologies and project management. Through this second apprenticeship, he is learning a variety of new skills that will help him take the next steps in his career.

It’s a guaranteed way to broaden your knowledge, see what resonates with you and what you enjoy doing. That appealed to me. It also gives you a lot of confidence in your organisation and time management skills

Chris Cocklin
Software Engineer and apprentice, IBM

Alongside other OU apprentices, Chris also shared his experiences at the OU campus with Robert Halfon MP and OU Vice Chancellor, Tim Blackman.

The importance of flexibility

Male colleague presenting to group

Chris chose to study through the OU rather than one of the other providers offered by IBM largely because of the high level of flexibility. “It makes it a lot easier because you can fit the study in around the rest of your working week. Also, I wasn’t sure where I was going to be permanently living so remote learning gave me a bit of freedom as to where I wanted to be.”

Jane Dickinson, Digital Skills Lead at the OU, thinks this flexibility will be increasingly important in today’s hybrid world. “More and more companies are operating hybrid models and I think it fits really well with that, on top of the flexibility of not having to engage in block release or day release.”

Added benefits

The OU has a credits system whereby it acknowledges any relevant learning that students have already undertaken. This also appealed to Chris as it meant he could apply his credits to the first two modules on the programme. Throughout his experience of the OU, Chris has been impressed by the quality and speed of the support offered. “You get a learning mentor to support you for the whole apprenticeship, you get your module tutors and you get forums. I’ve never had a question that I couldn’t get answered in less than a week.”

John agrees with Chris that the success of the OU apprenticeships is partly due to the high level of support, as well as the quality of the learning content. IBM and the OU are in regular contact to ensure all apprentices are happy and thriving on their courses.

A proven track record

IBM has an apprenticeship completion rate of over 90%, which John says is well above the national average. In fact, the apprenticeship are so popular that when the company opened applications to its latest round of Digital and Technology Solutions Professional Degree Apprenticeships during National Apprenticeship Week, it had to close applications on the same day – on reaching the target number of applicants.

If your organisation is interested in partnering in a similar way with the OU – please contact us.

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