Skip navigation

Image: FlickrWorkplace apprenticeships have long fought against the perception that they represent a poor relation to academic qualifications when it comes to finding a route into a long-term career. However, more and more employers in the digital and technology sectors are recognising the value of apprenticeship schemes in sourcing the right candidates for hard-to-fill job roles.


A recent UK survey found that 75% of businesses saw the benefit of taking on paid apprentices, while 61% believed that apprenticeships offered better access to talent than traditional hiring practices. However, in spite of these findings, fewer than half of UK businesses have actually implemented formal apprenticeship programs. Similarly, many students and young people are unaware of the opportunities an apprenticeship can provide.


Common misconceptions around apprenticeships include the idea that they reflect academic failure and that they're only suitable for pursuing manual and trade jobs. Many job seekers also struggle to distinguish apprenticeships from internships - which are typically unpaid positions only available to candidates with the resources to work for long stretches of time with no salary and often no guarantee of a job at the end of it. By comparison, in the UK apprentices aged 16-18 are entitled to a minimum wage of £3.40 per hour, usually rising as you progress. The average hourly wage for apprentices in England in 2014 was £6.31 for level 2 and 3 apprentices, and £9.68 per hour for level 4 and 5 higher apprentices.


Also, while apprenticeships can open doors for candidates who don't achieve the required grades for their preferred higher education course, they are increasingly competitive in their own right. High quality exam scores in core subjects such as Maths, English and the Sciences are now common requirements for many apprenticeships, while popular schemes run by companies such as Rolls Royce and British Airways are in such high demand that they have been described by some as tougher to get into than the UK's top universities.


Pursuing a workplace apprenticeship doesn't necessarily mean losing out on higher education either. Many apprenticeships culminate in a qualification equivalent to an academic degree, while in fields such as engineering, apprenticeships can often build towards pursuing a part-time University degree. Promoting these so-called 'academic apprenticeships', could be an important way of dispelling the misconceptions and encouraging more high-achieving students to seriously consider apprenticeship as a viable option for further study. "Young people... think their potential is going to be limited if they do an apprenticeship rather than go to University, which in most cases is wrong" explained Teresa Frith, senior skills policy manager at the Association of Colleges (A.O.C.) in an interview with the Guardian. "If you have the ability to follow the higher education route, you can make just as good progress in your career with an apprenticeship."


TeenTech is an award-winning UK initiative that works with a variety of companies and organisations to encourage young people to pursue career opportunities in Science, Engineering and Technology. At their recent TeenTech City event in London, there was a strong focus on introducing students aged 15 to 18 to the different routes to tech careers and apprenticeships, with advice sessions from industry professionals and current apprentices. There was also advice on how to find a suitable apprenticeship and tips to improve your chances of being accepted onto it.


Ben Mustill-Rose, a developer in test for the BBC, stressed the importance of so-called 'soft skills' and extracurricular activities to build experience and make an application stand out. "From a tech point of view, it's all about contributing to things" he explained. "It shows that you genuinely care about what you're doing... it's not just about what you do in the classroom."


Education about the value of apprenticeships also needs to be passed on to parents, many of whom remain uncomfortable with encouraging their children to pursue this route over University study, which is still perceived as more secure and aspirational despite evidence to the contrary. Becci Newton, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, spoke to The Guardian about the benefits that parents and young people need to be more aware of. "You're not racking up debt and you're getting paid" she explained. "By the end of the apprenticeship you've got qualifications, work experiences and you're in the labour market. You're in a really strong position."


Did you undertake an apprenticeship as part of your career development? Can they really offer equivalent benefits to a University degree? Share your thoughts in the comments section below...

Tallinn EstoniaA quick glance at the latest global education rankings for Science and Mathematics shows a near total dominance of the top positions by Asian countries including Singapore, Japan and China, alongside a smattering of affluent Western nations such as Canada, Switzerland and Finland. However, right up alongside these major players there appears one country that consistently punches well above its weight when it comes to STEM education - the small Baltic nation of Estonia.


A former Soviet republic that reclaimed independence in 1991, Estonia is not only streets ahead of its Baltic neighbours Latvia and Lithuania when it comes to education, they also routinely outrank major world powers including Germany, France, the UK and the USA. In the 2016 PISA rankings published last month, Estonia ranked third worldwide for Science - the highest ranking for any Western country - and ninth for Mathematics, based on average student performance among 15 year-olds in these subjects. 72 nations in total participated in the study.


So what's the secret to Estonia's success? One key factor is their long form with exploiting the benefits of digital technology. Globally successful businesses such as Skype and TransferWise originated in Estonia, while the country was an early adopter of various online technologies, declaring internet access to be a human right in 2000. Free WiFi became available in most public places as early as 2002, while digital systems were rapidly adopted for numerous processes, including online voting and their celebrated concept of a paperless 'E-Government'. Today, 95% of Estonians file their taxes online, for example.


The country's troubled road to independence also contributed to their present success. Emerging from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 90s, the Estonian government declined a proposed donation of a dated analogue telephone system from neighbouring Finland, opting instead to start from scratch and build a digital system of their own. With no legacy technology to speak of, the country was free to skip certain transitional stages that would slow progress in larger countries and commit wholeheartedly to developing a digital culture.


Skype EstoniaToday, technology industries account for around 15% of Estonia's GDP, which - in addition to a thriving start-up culture and widespread availability of digital resources - creates job opportunities and major incentives for young Estonians to pursue STEM subjects at school. Digital education starts early too, in 2012 an initiative called ProgeTiiger - which translates as "Programming Tiger" - was launched in a partnership between the Government and the Private sector, providing lessons in the basics of coding to Estonian children from the age of five years old. There is also significant investment in ensuring equality of educational opportunity for children from all economic backgrounds,


Like their Nordic neighbours Finland and Sweden, Estonia can leverage high taxation and a relatively small population to provide high quality education to the majority of their citizens. However, their forward-thinking approach to digital is also reflected in their politicians. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who served as Estonia's president from 2006 to 2016, was raised in New Jersey USA and learned how to program as a teenager, giving him an appreciation for STEM subjects that he carried into his political career.


""For the people who do laws and policy, very often the last time they took math was in grade school. They don't really follow these things and it is all kind of mystical to them" he explained in a recent interview. "But there's a correlation between quality of math education and tech success." Indeed, with digital literacy and startup culture so widespread in Estonia, the relationship between young tech entrepreneurs and the government is unusually close, helping STEM initiatives like ProgeTiiger and Tech Sisters - which aims to provide more women with the support and resources they need to pursue IT and technology - to thrive.


"In the 80s, every boy in high school wanted to be a rock star" explained TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus in a 2013 interview with The Economist. "Now, everybody in high school wants to be an entrepreneur". Thanks to Estonia's dedication to STEM education and engagement with digital innovation, the next generation has not only the aspiration to realise this dream, but the tools as well.

Women in STEM


Representation and equal opportunities for women remains a major issue in STEM fields, where men continue to disproportionately dominate the workforce across numerous key industries. Worryingly, despite a number of initiatives aimed narrowing the gender gap, the proportion of the STEM workforce occupied by women has actually decreased from 22% to 21% in the United Kingdom since 2015, according to a study carried out by WISE.


One key finding of this and other studies has been that women and young girls often fail to see themselves reflected in the images and media surrounding STEM careers. To combat this, Getty Images recently ran an international competition in partnership with Your Life and Washington STEM to source inspirational images of STEM professionals. The winning image, entitled 'Red & Blue' was taken by photographer Stanislaw Pytel, and features a young woman working on a circuit board.


According to Your Life chair Edwina Dunn,  the goal of the project was to move away from the stereotypical images of middle-aged white men in white coats and present a more diverse picture of the modern STEM vocations.


"We are simply not doing enough to show young people the many inspiring men and women who are right now working on projects to provide the world with cleaner energy sources, to give us healthier foods, to cure cancer, to provide those without shelter with smart homes and so much more” Dunn told the Huffington Post in a recent article. "“We are delighted with this set of images which help to challenge stereotypes and represent the true picture of exciting science-fueled jobs of the future.”


Colleen Smith, Vice President and General Manager of OpenEdge at Progress also called for more support for women in STEM fields in a recent article for Fortune Magazine, noting that girls interested in pursuing a STEM career were four times more likely than boys to feel that their teachers haven't prepared them enough to succeed in their chosen field. Many celebrated female leaders have emerged from STEM backgrounds, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer.


Smith argues that it's never too early to nurture an interest in technical fields, and that after-school clubs and parents need to explore less stereotypical activities for girls. "Girls who have more exposure to science and technology... are given a more well-rounded experience" she explains. "It helps to immediately dismiss the society-generated notion that some activities are better suited for one gender over the other."


Numerous studies appear to back up Smith's argument. For example, girls who participated in Girl Scout STEM programs reported a boost in confidence by up to 61% in maths classes and 82% in science. Smith posits that this confidence can not only encourage girls to pursue further STEM studies, it can also empower them to take on leadership roles in all fields - something Merkel, Mayer and their contemporaries would likely agree with.


Are you a woman pursuing a career or program of study in a STEM field? Are you a parent of girls who you'd like to encourage to take an interest in STEM subjects? Is representation the answer to closing the gap? Share your insights in the comments section below.

Year in Review Banner 2016.png

As one of the resident content specialists at element14, it’s been my job to take charge of two key areas of the community throughout 2016 – Business of Engineering and STEM Academy. Here are some of our favourite features and projects from the past 12 months...


Business of Engineering: Startup Case Studies

The Things Network Farnell


Business of Engineering is the area where we shine a light on the startups and engineering innovations that are helping to push the industry forwards.  We’re proud to be part of a company that supports a wide variety of smaller businesses and enterprises, particularly those working in IoT and electrical engineering.


From production and manufacturing to distribution and technical support, Farnell element14 and our subsidiary companies have been able to use our unique position within the industry to help a number of exciting innovations to move from the development phase onto the global market – and element14 has been on hand to cover them every step of the way.


These innovations have included The Things Network – a Dutch company using LoRaWAN technology to create a global public IoT data network, allowing devices to communicate without the need for 3G or Wi-Fi.  The Things Network announced a partnership with Farnell element14 in November 2016, for the manufacture, marketing and distribution of its gateways and nodes.


We also featured Pi Supply, a Raspberry Pi emporium that combines existing Raspberry Pi technology with specially developed accessories from their in-house research and development team – including the Pi Supply Switch and the Pi Juice Portable Project Platform.


Portability was also a key consideration for nScope, a US-based initiative developing portable lab software for teaching electronics outside the traditional lab environment. The brainchild of two teaching assistants from Northwestern University, nScope is now being expanded into a full curriculum of learning resources for students of electronics and electrical engineering.


Last but not least, Norwegian Startup Future Home had a big 2016 with their Smart Hub Gateway for remotely controlling, monitoring and automating a wide variety of smart devices through a single user-friendly app.  Having already experienced a successful domestic launch, after being featured in our community, Future Home went from strength to strength, and are currently finalising a number of major distribution deals and partnership opportunities that we look forward to covering in the new year.


STEM Academy: BBC micro:bit

BBC micro:bit

One of the most exciting projects Farnell element14 has been involved in throughout 2016 has been the launch of the BBC micro:bit. Working alongside the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and a number of major global partner corporations, we helped to distribute over 1 million BBC micro:bit devices to UK school children, free of charge.


Billed as the BBC’s most ambitious education initiative in thirty years, the BBC micro:bit is a pocket sized, ARM-based codeable computer featuring motion detection, a built-in compass, Bluetooth technology and a host of additional features aimed at helping UK students to get to grips with the fundamentals of coding and digital creativity.


A total of 29 partners were involved in bringing the BBC micro:bit project to fruition, including major brands from across the industry, including Microsoft, Nordic Semiconductor, NXP, ARM holdings and more.


Operating on a not-for-profit basis, Premier Farnell was closely involved with design optimisation, manufacturing and logistics for the project, in addition to helping to ensure that the device could be manufactured at a sustainable cost without sacrificing accessibility for the target market. With further global rollout for the device well underway for 2017 and beyond, it is hoped that the BBC micro:bit will ultimately evolve into a powerful global brand to complement and stand alongside current market leaders such as Raspberry Pi and Beagle Bone Black.


Over on the element14 STEM Academy we now have a dedicated content space for BBC micro:bit projects and initiatives. We’ve already sent out devices to several of our top members, who have been testing the BBC micro:bit’s capabilities with a number of creative projects. We look forward to even more exciting developments with this initiative in the New Year, so watch this space!


To stay up to date with all of our latest projects and initiatives, be sure to follow the STEM Academy and Business of Engineering content spaces for regular updates and opportunities to participate in product road tests and design challenges.