The Six Reasons Why Apprenticeships Mean Business

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As a passionate champion of apprenticeships, I’m delighted to see the model growing in popularity and reputation. UCAS, for example, now features apprenticeships on their website on a par with traditional university opportunities.

Despite this, however, I’m often still asked “can we have a graduate for our business?”. To which I reply: “how about an apprentice?”. Proving the business case is always top of my priorities and I’m happy to bang the drum to anyone who’ll listen!  Why? Because apprentices can bring real business value from Day 1. In line with the theme of this year’s UK National Apprenticeship Week, it all starts with skills…

Relevant Skills and Knowledge

According to UK Government research, 86% of employers say apprenticeships help develop skills relevant to business needs. Likewise, in a study by the St Martin’s Group – a body created to foster a sustainable skills system – employers agreed that this is the number one advantage.

This comes as no surprise when you consider that any apprenticeship qualification is structured to cover the knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) required to be competent in a role. These KSBs form the basis of an apprentice’s on-and-off-the-job training, after which they must show they can apply them, alongside the necessary mindset and ‘soft skills’.

IBM’s apprentice programme is in its 14th year. Our apprentices consistently prove able to rapidly assimilate skills and knowledge, both at the start of their careers and as they advance. This progression puts them on a par with all other IBMers and means that former apprentices can be found all over our organisation, in roles ranging from Senior Strategy Consultant, to Product Manager, to IT Architect, Cloud Platform Sales Specialist, and Senior Solution Architect. For me, there’s no better validation of the model’s effectiveness.

Staff Retention and ROI

Government research shows that 80% of employers who hire apprentices report higher staff retention.

Employers offer apprenticeships to attract new talent, as well as retain and reskill existing staff to progress. This improved retention provides a tangible return on employers’ investment in apprenticeships, while helping reduce skills shortages.

The St Martin’s Group report found that UK employers see an average annual gain of £2,500 to £18,000 in output per apprentice during their training period.

Our IBM early professional apprenticeship programme has achieved a 90% retention rate since 2017 and a 100% pass rate at end point assessment. When our degree apprentices graduate after their three- or four-year programmes, they are effectively “new graduates”. Yet, they already have a wealth of experience and relevant skills. This makes them a critical client-facing resource, generating ROI virtually from Day 1.

Interestingly, the study shows that apprentices also believe that retention is an important success indicator, making them feel invested in and keen to remain, earning as they learn and avoiding student debt.

Enhanced Productivity

“Improved productivity and efficiency across business and IT operations are the goals of any CIO or CTO.”- Arvind Krishna, IBM chairman and CEO.

UK Government research found that 78% of UK employers believe apprenticeships help improve productivity. Similarly, St Martin’s Group data indicates that employers think apprentices deliver a return even during their training.

At IBM, we offer various technology-based apprenticeships, enabling the apprentice to be productive immediately after induction and embark on a long and successful career. Professional development is top of mind from apprentices’ first day and so we offer a ladder of opportunity to move from level 2, through to 3, 4, 5, 6 (degree apprenticeships) and 7 (Masters).

We’re proud of Ofsted’s analysis that IBM offers “a highly challenging training programme” where apprentices “benefit from exceptional teaching resources (..) enabling them to quickly develop the new knowledge, skills and behaviours to work successfully at IBM.”

Improved Diversity and Inclusion

In the St Martin’s group report, employers said that diversity is an important success indicator of apprenticeships, helping attract people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

Diversity and inclusion have been foundational principles of IBM’s culture for over 100 years. We strive to create a culture of conscious inclusion and active allyship. Where better to start than with our early professional population, bringing in diverse new hires.

Our strategy is to team up with partners who help us reach students who may not have considered IBM as a future employer.  We offer IBM SkillsBuild: a free learning portal, to all outreach candidates; enabling them to obtain technical knowledge and digital certifications with which to enhance their applications.

Apprenticeships have also played a major part in helping us to increase diversity. Our flourishing IBM early professional communities for Black, multi-ethnic minority, LBGT+, People with Disabilities, Neurodiversity and Females plus Be Equal allies demonstrate this success.

Customer Satisfaction

Government data shows that 74% of employers think apprenticeships help them improve the quality of their product or service.

At IBM, apprentices’ performance is formally appraised on their ability to deliver value to our clients. Continuous improvement culminates in promotion as they qualify. We now see evidence of second, third and fourth promotions after their programme progression.

We have apprentices who have won Client Service Excellence awards for their work during the pandemic, creating an information system for the general public which prioritised the needs of users with accessibility needs.

Interestingly, 92% of employers also see a boost in workforce motivation and satisfaction due to apprenticeships, so it works both ways.

Closing the Skills Gap

According to the World Economic Forum, closing the global skills gap could add US$11.5 trillion to global GDP by 2028. St Martin’s Group research, meanwhile, demonstrates that employers consider the reduction of skills shortages as a key factor in hiring apprentices.

Taking artificial intelligence (AI) as an example, we know from our own research that the main barrier to AI adoption at enterprises are limited AI skills (38%). Digital apprenticeships can address this gap. There are specific AI related Standards such as the Artificial Intelligence data specialist Level 7; as well as Cyber security apprenticeships, addressing another ‘hot’ skill. These provide an excellent solution to reskill experienced technical employees.

The results and the achievements of IBM’s apprentices prove what a powerful mechanism our programme can be – both in terms of developing leaders of the future, as well as delivering critical training and enablement sessions for business partners.


Hiring an apprentice is the ultimate win-win. It’s a productive and effective way to grow talent and develop a motivated, skilled and qualified team. This makes it an excellent way to both expand and upskill any workforce. Importantly, your programmes can be adapted to the needs of your business. There are over 800 apprenticeship standards to choose from.

In view of the current digital skills shortage in the UK, continued skills development is paramount to delivering value to our clients at IBM. On-the-job learning through apprenticeships has unequivocally proved the best way to equip our future workforce with the right skills in a world of digital innovation.

It is also worth bearing in mind that all training is paid for by the Apprenticeship Levy, which can be an important factor for companies weighing up the potential costs and ROI of investing in an apprenticeship programme. In my opinion, it’s always worthwhile!

Leader of IBM UK's Early Professional Programmes

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