Jacob Mercer is a great example of someone who is taking full advantage of innovative online work-based learning. He lives in Aberdeen, his employer is based in Shetland in the Northern Isles of Scotland, but he works largely from home, and he is currently undertaking the first year of an Open University graduate apprenticeship programme.
Jacob, who previously spent 10 years working in catering, is working full-time for Mesomorphic, a company that specialises in creating bespoke software for SMEs, while he undertakes a four-year BSc (Honours) IT: Software Development graduate apprenticeship.
It’s a relatively new apprenticeship in Scotland, but Steven Forrest, apprenticeships programme delivery manager at The Open University (OU) in Scotland, says it is appealing to an ever-increasing number of employers. “We’re now in our second year in Scotland and it’s really popular now,” he says. “Numbers have boosted by 150% this year for new starters.”
Apprenticeships like this are a valuable talent attraction and retention tool for employers, as well as an opportunity to develop vital skills and future-proof their business.
There is a shortage of digital skills across the whole of the UK and it’s a big issue in Scotland, particularly in remote, rural areas. Tutor-supported distance learning apprenticeships, such as the one Mercer is doing, open up opportunities to individuals and organisations, wherever they are based. “The apprentices are not required to attend on-campus to access the learning and teaching; we bring it to them,” says Steven. “Apprentices are able to undertake the programme in the workplace, making the most of their time by applying new knowledge into practice almost immediately.”
This is one of the main reasons why Maria Bell, Managing Director at Mesomorphic, chose the OU Graduate Apprenticeship: because it truly is integrated work-based learning delivered online. “They were the only one offering the course using a delivery model that suited us,” she says.”
We don’t have to worry about getting Jacob to the university because the whole purpose is to learn on the job. That’s really beneficial from our point of view.Maria Bell, Managing Director at Mesomorphic
Maria supports Jacob and makes sure he can dedicate 20% of the working week to complete the work-based learning. Had Jacob been required to travel to a university to participate in lectures and tutorials, it would most likely have not been viable for the company as a small business. “When you are in a remote location you might have to travel the day before and or the day after to attend on-campus. And you would also incur the costs associated with the travel.”
The OU’s flexibility gave it a significant edge when she was choosing a provider, says Maria. Plus, she knew that the OU has a wealth of experience behind it and is known as a leader in providing online higher education that is both varied and interactive, with multiple rich media formats that engage and enthuse the learner on their journey. “It has the resources and infrastructure to really help the learning happen,” she says. “And in the best way to support Jacob – they can also flex additional support if needed.”
Jacob agrees that he gets a lot of support from the OU, particularly from his practice tutor. And he really likes the fact that he has the flexibility to manage his learning around his work peaks and troughs, or vice versa if he has extra learning to do. “I can get on with it at my own pace. I can load up and get ahead or catch-up at a later date, where possible.”
At the end of the four years, Jacob will have a globally-recognised Honours degree qualification and a body of evidence to support it. While the apprenticeship is primarily focused on software development, there is also an emphasis on business processes, which Maria says is great for Jacob and great for Mesomorphic. “He doesn’t just sit there and write code – he is getting involved in planning meetings and proposal writing too and has the opportunity to develop other professional skills. This is giving him a well-rounded view of what it means to work in this industry as a whole.”
And then there’s the other major benefit to Jacob and Mesomorphic of course – the apprenticeship is fully funded by Skills Development Scotland. The programmes are available to employers who are looking to upskill or reskill existing staff, or perhaps recruit and develop new staff – individuals are eligible for a funded place if they both live and work in Scotland and are aged 16 years old and above.