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Finding hidden talent through inclusive and flexible learning

Erin Smith, Applied Software Engineering Degree Apprentice, Pembrokeshire County Council

There are a lot of things that Erin Smith enjoys about her Applied Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship. Firstly, there’s the opportunity to learn new skills.

Making an impact

As well as learning new IT skills through The Open University (OU) apprenticeship, Erin is also putting those skills into practice on a daily basis, using them to inform her work as a Transformation Officer at Pembrokeshire County Council. Erin and her colleagues are working on data management across the council, a key transformation project, and her apprenticeship learning is feeding directly into that project work. “I am much more knowledgeable and confident now and it’s really useful to bridge the gap between improving projects and the IT team.”

For Erin, the ability to keep working and earning while studying is really important. Although it’s a big commitment to study for a degree while in full-time employment, it is manageable because of how the apprenticeship is structured, the flexible nature of the programme and the ongoing support provided by the practice tutor.

And the practical, work-based learning suits Erin as she likes being able to apply and embed what she learns as she progresses through the course. “There’s a purpose to the work that I’m doing. I learn something and then put it into practice in my role. It’s a really good balance of studies and practical activities, like the coding.”

I really like IT but have been self-taught up until this point. Doing this apprenticeship, I’ve learnt a lot about topics such as the basics of network infrastructure, some coding, about project management and IT projects – really useful new knowledge.

Erin Smith
Applied Software Engineering Degree Apprentice, Pembrokeshire County Council

Enabling personal growth

Having left college with a national diploma in computer arts and design to go straight into the workplace, Erin didn’t think she would ever achieve a degree level qualification. She joined the council in 2016 in an administrative position and has worked her way up into her current role. Her manager, Sarah Oliver, Business Change Manager at the Council, encouraged her to embark on the apprenticeship, having spotted Erin’s aptitude for learning early on. “She wants to understand how things work and how to do things better but she has never been confident in her own abilities.” That has all changed, according to Sarah: “There has been a massive change in her confidence levels over the three years she has been doing the apprenticeship – her growth in confidence from when she started the degree apprenticeship to where we are now has been phenomenal.”

The wider benefits

And it’s not only Erin who is benefitting from her studies. Sarah says the whole team has benefitted hugely, as well as a noticeable impact on the transformation project work at the council. “The team has benefitted from Erin’s learning as much as Erin has. We have a weekly catch up where we engage with and reflect on Erin’s learning. It has enabled us to revisit theories, such as around project management and culture change, to share learning and to explore things like project management tools.”

In order to get the most out of apprenticeships, Sarah says it’s very important that line managers fully understand what is involved. “As a manager, you have to be as committed as the apprentice.” Do that and it’s well worth the effort, in her opinion.

Addressing IT skills gaps

Like everywhere else in the UK, there is a shortage of IT talent in Wales. And the council has found it increasingly hard to attract the talent it needs since the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve been really challenged in terms of roles like IT software engineers because post-Covid, a lot more people are working in large private sector organisations, earning salaries we can’t compete with,” says Sarah.

One way that the council can attract and retain talent is by offering learning opportunities that help people fulfill their personal and professional ambitions. And that is what Sarah says Pembrokeshire County Council is doing.

Lifelong learning is really important. Where you start in the public sector can be very different to where you end up – it’s vital that we carry out talent spotting in our own cohort and think about how we can develop and retain people.

Sarah Oliver
Business Change Manager, Pembrokeshire County Council

Finding hidden talent

Sarah thinks it is also important to make learning accessible to people who may not have realised their full potential during their formative academic studies. “We’ve got youngsters in the organisation who, for whatever reason, the education system didn’t work for them. The OU is really inclusive and it’s a way for people to attain an education in a way that suits them.”

Jane Reakes-Davies, Head of Human Resources agrees that apprenticeships are a great way for the public sector to grow its own talent and fill skills gaps at the same time.

Attracting people to jobs in the public sector can be hard because of market pressures. Erin is a great ambassador and proof that it can be done.

Jane Reakes-Davies
Head of Human Resources, Pembrokeshire County Council

While Erin still has another year of studying to complete, she says she is already reaping the benefits. “I like to keep moving and progress. Without this degree I could have got stuck, but it is opening doors for me. I’m learning new skills and growing in the company. I’m so glad I took the opportunity.”

Learn more about the Applied Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship

Find out ways to develop your workforce through the OU

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