Public Services > Central Government

The Valuer's Apprentice

David Bicknell Published 07 May 2013

A new ICT apprenticeship scheme created by the Valuation Office Agency is breaking the trail for the rest of government in how to recruit the Facebook Generation

 

The Valuation Office Agency (VOA), an executive agency of HM Revenue & Customs, is breaking the trail in showing government departments and agencies how to acquire new IT talent.

The VOA, which provides the Government with the valuations and property advice required to support taxation and benefits, is now into its third year of a highly regarded external apprenticeship scheme which is enabling the agency to gain new software development talent from the Facebook generation and at the same time reduce the average age of the 85 strong IT staff.

The scheme was introduced in 2011 by the VOA's chief information officer, Philip McPherson, who tasked IT skills development team leader Kevin Ransom and apprentice manager Gail Ramsden with creating a scheme that would get new young talent into the agency.

"There wasn't a scheme already in place that we could use. So the VOA developed its first ICT professional scheme. There are some ICT user schemes in existence and there are some other government schemes for existing members of staff who want to do apprenticeships, but we wanted to bring new young talent into the agency. And so we developed our own scheme from scratch," says Ransom.

"We started in 2011. So now, we've had the 2011 September intake, and the September 2012. And now we're thinking about the next stages."

The scheme is the VOA ICT Professional scheme which distinguishes it from an existing IT User scheme, which is more concerned with using applications such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint and other applications rather than developing new applications.

There is no age restriction on the VOA's apprenticeship scheme and it is open to existing members of the VOA staff. But it is at the entry grades - Administrative Officer, Administrative Assistant etc- which appeal mostly to young talent from outside the Civil Service.

Most of the VOA's apprentices are in the 16-19 range, though the agency last year had an apprentice aged 27.

"There are no age restrictions. But part of the apprenticeship is really to bring in young ideas and talent, bringing in the Facebook, and social media generation because we already have an established IT department with experienced people and what we need is a balance with younger people coming in with fresh ideas," says Ransom.

There are currently 85 people in the VOA's IT department and it has taken on 20 apprentices in two intakes at two locations, Worthing on the South Coast and London. The VOA used the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) putting in an advertisement through the NAS website.

Recruitment, especially on the South Coast, is not easy however.

"We have had some local recruitment difficulties in Worthing particularly, and to some extent in London," says Ransom. "In Worthing there is competition from Brighton where there are software development houses and private sector employers like American Express. It's a limited catchment area with only 100,000 people living there and in London too there is competition on pay for developers."

The split in the VOA's apprentice numbers between Worthing and London is currently 7 in London and 8 in Worthing, with developer roles in London and a range of roles in Worthing, including business analysts, project managers, network engineers, helpdesk staff, and project officers.

The length of the scheme for apprentices depends on whether it is ICT Level 2, which is the equivalent of five good GCSEs and where the duration is about a year, or the Level 3 scheme, which is the equivalent of two A-Levels, and which is two years long.

Those on the Level 2 scheme in Worthing, do four days project work rotating in different departments and then have a day release at Northbrook College in Worthing. The Level 3 apprentices in London have a block release approach, a bit like a software boot camp. They work in their department on project work and are then released for a week to go and learn about software development.

"There are some long days and some intense work in the evening as well. But that works well if you're trying to develop software engineers because it offers accelerated learning. We notice a big improvement when apprentices come back, when they are very much more useful in terms of their software skills," says Ransom.

For Ransom, the apprenticeship scheme is a unique way to balance the skills and age of the VOA's IT department.

"There is an ageing demograph in the VOA just as there is in other government departments. We've got quite a high average age and we need to bring new skills in. We are breaking the mould a bit in terms of having the first externally recruited ICT professional scheme in government. There are government departments that do 'ICT user' as opposed to 'ICT professional' schemes. But the ICT professional, offers more technical detail. There are schemes in government where existing staff can apply for ICT professional apprenticeships but in this combination of external recruitment and the ICT professional we are unique," says Ransom.

It is a model that has already attracted significant interest from other Whitehall departments who face the same challenge of getting in new blood.

"Our colleagues in HMRC have expressed an interest. We'd also like to share our knowledge with other government departments if they'd like us to."

The VOA is an executive agency of HMRC, although it is an independent agency. But like all government departments, it is having to come to terms with a digital future.

"More of our services will become digital in the future. So one of the reasons for the new resources is to meet the challenge of the government digital service and also to cut our costs and provide better value for money as well. We hope that the younger people we are taking on board will have more familiarity with Facebook, Twitter and the social media generation and so help us reach our customers better," says Ransom.

One of the VOA's apprentices is Francis Dean, aged 18 from Woking, who works at the VOA's London site. What attracted him to an IT apprenticeship?

"When I was at secondary school I began to think what other paths there were other than the traditional going into the sixth form and then off to university," he says. "And at that stage apprenticeships, especially in IT, were very new. I've also enjoyed computers since I was nine year old and it turned out that I could get paid to do something I like, gain a qualification while being paid and also gain experience. So I decided to apply for an apprenticeship and never looked back."

Dean was keen to do software development.

"I saw that the VOA advertised on the National Apprenticeship scheme and I was looking for apprenticeships. There was an opportunity at the Valuation office and it looked like it was interesting work and I could learn a lot. At that point I hadn't really thought that I would be working in the public sector or for the Civil Service," he says.

His IT role at the VOA means he not only gets experience working on departmental applications. He also gets to spend some time through his training with QA, working at a boot camp near the software hothouse that the area has become around Old Street in London.

"I'm doing software development almost exclusively using Microsoft technologies. And I've been using a lot of C sharp and Visual Basic. And also been involved in quite a lot of database work which of course the Valuation Office has a lot of data, so that's one of the big things we've been doing. It also means working with customers in the business and understanding their requirements. I really enjoy software development and I can't see myself moving out of that area."

For Ransom, Dean's work, though as an apprentice, is still important within the context of the VOA's business.

"The IT department is responsible for gathering the requirements and then Francis and his colleagues will be writing the software for that. So there is a traditional IT approach to delivery, even though it is a digital service. Digital is really about making it accessible to a larger number of people and to be honest, lowering the unit cost of transactions, which is very important in terms of the cost agenda," he says.

"Francis is involved in real work. For example, he's worked on a customer contact application, but obviously under supervision," adds Ransom. "In order to code you need to be a good software developer and you need the business skills to understand that what you're coding has to be part of business process improvement. It can't just be a lovely esoteric piece of software. So you need a mixture of business skills and technical skills. And that blend is quite difficult to get. So we're trying to grow it ourselves organically. Our core business is about providing Government with the valuations and property advice required to support taxation and benefits and doing that as efficiently with as best value for money as possible. And IT supports that."

Ransom is hopeful that the VOA's apprentice scheme will become an exemplar for other departments.

"Certainly we've had 15 Level 2 and Level 3 apprentices pass through successfully so I think we've proved that it can work and that we can offer the sort of roles within government that can train people up."

At the same time Ransom accepts that the apprenticeship cannot be an easy ride and that making the scheme a success required management input once it had gained the approval of a VOA board which signed off the business case.

"A key part of it is that if you don't offer challenging work you won't meet all the module requirements of the apprenticeship, so that needs active management. You've got to be able to offer the opportunities for the young people to be able to experience their skills.

Apprenticeships have an on-the-job component often assessed by observation as well as an academic component.

"You can select the modules on the scheme, and so the ones we've chosen - requirements engineering, project management and software development - have been picked very carefully to make sure that they do work for our business. Other departments across government may tailor that slightly for their business. What we've learned is that we don't just want a vanilla apprenticeship. We get involved and design it for our business , working with our training providers. Northbrook College and QA have been very, very good."

Although the scheme was the brainchild of the VOA's CIO Philip McPherson, it is clear that its success is based very much on Ransom's enthusiasm both for the scheme itself, and also for apprenticeships in general.

"I'd had some experience with apprenticeships before in engineering. But I'm very passionate about apprenticeships. I think they're a fantastic way forwards. We shouldn't see apprenticeships as mutually exclusive to the university route. You can still go and get a degree in the world of work. There are apprenticeships now up to Level 7, which is Masters Degree level."

That said, there is no guarantee of a job at the end of the apprenticeship, though the VOA is hopeful that the training the apprentices have gained will stand them in good stead to apply for VOA full-time IT roles.

"There isn't any guarantee of a job at the end of the apprenticeship. But we would really hope that after training the apprentices for two years, everyone who's gone through the apprenticeship scheme would apply for a permanent role within the agency. We've offered Francis a Level 3 apprenticeship. He started at level 2 and has gone on to Level 3. And then we would give him every help and encouragement to apply for permanent roles within the agency," says Ransom.

"The apprentices are on temporary contracts for the duration of the apprenticeship. There has to be fair and open competition and they will be up against other people competing at that grade. But if we've done our job correctly, we've trained them to apply for those roles."

Would Dean recommend the scheme to others?

"This is definitely making people think, 'Is there an alternative to university?' Yes I would recommend it. It's a big jump, but it's definitely worthwhile. And you're still getting qualifications that you might have gone on to do at college. You're getting paid and you're also getting experience."

The success so far justifies VOA CIO Philip Macpherson's drive to create an apprenticeship that would serve the agency's future IT needs.

"The VOA decided to implement a scheme to bring IT apprentices in to the Agency during 2011 and I am extremely pleased at how well it has worked out," he says. "The apprentices are hard-working and determined to be successful. They have proved to be a positive contribution to IT delivery in the agency."

Ransom is also certainly proud of the progress so far at a time when the VOA is also working on its own plans for transformation.

"We're quite proud of being the first to do this. We had to get the VOA board to agree, so we had to put a business case together. At the moment we are still pulling together our own plans for transformation. The key drivers for us are going to be digital service and of course also reducing the cost of the business. We are investing in IT in order to reduce costs, and we see IT as an enabler within the agency."

 

 








We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.