Are apprenticeships the answer?

The IT industry could close the skills gap if it took a risk on students

A couple of columns back I looked at the trials and tribulations of being green ("It’s not easy being green", October 4). No, not being a greenie, but trying to get work experience when you’re a student and are new to the IT field. Many educational institutions now require students to complete an industry project as part of their course, but it’s not always easy for students to gain such work experience. My recent column on the topic was sparked by two National College of Multimedia and Technology students in Auckland, who have been unsuccessfully looking for an industry placement as part of their course. One respondent to that column is on the other side of the fence — an employer. He says he started his career many years ago as a student completing work experience. "Back in those days, companies would also pay a meagre wage for the work. I think in my first two years of a career [as a programmer], I went from earning $90 a week to minimum wage. Needless to say it was a baptism by fire and absolutely invaluable. I would not be where I am today without that chance." Now that he’s hired and worked with a few people, he likes to try and give the same opportunity to other people coming into the industry. "I think in the last two years we have hired two people on job experience and then hired them into a permanent or contract role. I’ve always found these people tend to be enthusiastic and hard working, with a passion to learn." Many people call him for work experience, he says, but unfortunately he doesn’t have work for all of them. "But when we do have an opportunity, we don’t hesitate to allow someone to come in to do job experience." He believes one way to address the shortage of employers would be to introduce a programme in the IT arena similar to the old apprenticeship scheme. He says it would be particularly beneficial given the high cost of education. "There is a possibility that we could fill the IT gap we have in New Zealand at the moment a lot quicker." I think it would be interesting for such an idea to be developed further. Computerworld regularly hears from people — not necessarily just students — who are trying to gain vital experience in an IT workplace with no luck. Perhaps a formal programme is just what is needed — whether it’s for students looking to do industry projects as part of a course, those who have already graduated or those who are keen to start from scratch in a workplace. Such a scheme might help the likes of a Northland student who, like the Auckland students, is having problems finding a placement for his required industry project (part of his Applied Information Systems degree). He has talked to many people about finding a project to work on, but has met with no success. "Organisations are looking for people with experience," he says. "But they are not offering the opportunity to gain this experience, which is hurting them in the long run. "I am willing to work for free and offer my skills, but organisations are so naive, they see this as a liability, due to the fact that they have to spend time and money for someone to supervise the project." He says they should see it as a positive, with the opportunity to be able to gain free time and knowledge. "This makes me mad because once I find a project, gain the experience and then go out into the workforce these same companies are going to want to employ me. It seems to me that companies should give a little to get a lot." This student is still "desperately" looking for a project so he can "finish this degree, start earning some money and then pay off some of my student loan". Mills is Computerworld’s careers editor and can be contacted at kirstin_mills@idg.co.nz or ph: 03-467-2869 or fax: 0-3-467 2875.

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