Behind the best apprenticeship programmes, you’ll find passion, experience, and diversity. Nothing could embody this better than the programme currently running at Smart IT in Northeast England. Launched alongside QA in 2017, this small business placed a few apprentices at the heart of its team and hasn’t looked back since.

A good thing too, because in 2022, the Department of Education ranked Smart IT as the second-best Technology Apprenticeship Employer in England for its outstanding programme. Over a few years, 11 apprentices have completed the Microsoft Azure Cloud Support Specialist Level 3 Apprenticeship, with a further 13 currently going through it. Let’s look at why and how it became such a success.

The need for tailored talent

Smart IT prides itself on delivering friendly and proactive IT services to approximately 1,000 customers across the UK. From third-line support to fully outsourced network management, its team is constantly exposed to an evolving technical landscape, ensuring client infrastructures of all sizes and technologies stay online and up to date 24/7.

In 2017, after years of growth, the company began to rethink its team structure, breaking the IT department into two sections for efficiency. A first-line support desk became the client’s initial point of contact, with junior engineers completing simpler enquires. Alongside this, a senior engineer desk managed escalated tickets or complex issues. The company defaulted to recruiting junior engineers for first-line support. However, candidates were often very experienced in one area of IT, lacking the breadth of knowledge needed to cover Smart IT’s wide variety of clients. With six months of training required to get them up to speed, it became apparent that apprentices may offer a better approach.

Tony Wilson, Director at Smart IT, comments on this change in thinking: “We don’t service one type of technology or network – our team services thousands. We realised that training people via a custom apprenticeship with QA could ensure even the most inexperienced person would quickly earn the qualifications and skills needed to meet the variety of requests seen in our busy support desk. Complement that with shadowing our skilled engineers in-house, and in the same six months it took to expose a junior engineer to our landscape, we could mould an apprentice to exactly what we needed and more.”

Did the new approach work? You bet. Since the first QA cohort joined Smart IT, the first-line support team has consisted of apprentices. The busy desk provides the perfect learning environment, exposing apprentices to every possible IT scenario so they’re well prepared for any career in the industry. But, with a 90% apprentice retention rate at the end of the programme, Smart IT has kept much of that experience in-house, creating two first-line support teams that can solve any client issue.

As current apprentices study alongside work, they’re kept up to date with the latest skills, which subsequently filter across the business, constantly infusing the teams with new knowledge.

Andrew Bainbridge, who mentors apprentices through the Smart IT programme, comments: “QA regularly contact me with new elements to add to the course, so it’s up to date. When I read through the material, I learn something new, but often, I have to keep up with the apprentices!”

Opportunity for people and business

Andrew was an apprentice himself in a different business. His experience wasn’t what he hoped for, but he strives to do things differently with Smart IT’s programme.

“I’m passionate about offering apprenticeships to those who might otherwise have been turned away. So many of our apprentices don’t have any previous IT experience; they’re fresh from school or a different industry entirely. In interviews, I don’t ask about qualifications or experience – I get to know the person. That’s who you’re inviting to be part of the team,” he notes.

He believes this approach plays a huge role in creating a team that gels well, which ultimately drives individual and business success. “We can teach them the skills they need if they have the right attitude,” he adds. “I don’t want our apprentices to feel the way I did. I want to see them grow, no matter where they start from. I show candidates around, proud to point out the other successful apprentices who are now doing great in the business. It motivates me and them to do their best.

This open-door attitude has wider ramifications across the business. “We want to see our apprentices succeed and join the business long term,” Tony says. “By showing apprentices a caring attitude and career path beyond the programme, we encourage them to grow with us. Hiring an engineer is expensive, so having this pipeline of tailored talent ensures we’re focused on service rather than recruitment. Not only that, as people hear about the programme, they want to join across all levels, attracting the best talent even in areas where we don’t currently have apprenticeships.”

Apprentices have become a key part of business operations thanks to the support they receive from both QA and Smart IT. The first-line support teams, where apprentices start their careers, deal with 90% of customer issues. This frees up expensive senior engineers to focus on complex tickets or infrastructure maintenance, putting skills to use most efficiently.

Placing diversity at the future of the programme

Opening doors to the inexperienced is just the start for Smart IT. Keen to put diversity at the centre of their programme, they’re aiming to encourage more gender and cultural diversity in the IT industry. In this year’s cohort, the company has taken on three women for the first time and is actively providing time for people of different faiths to work, learn and worship as their culture requires.

Tony comments: “From an engineering point of view, diversity in our team and apprentice programme ensures there’s also diversity in opinion and perspective – it stops us going down one route. Instead, we’ve got a lot of different inputs and ways to approach the same problem. Not only is this good for us to learn personally, but it’s great for our clients.”

Andrew wants this openness to continue as the programme grows. “Bringing together people from different backgrounds, faiths, and genders is great for the team,” he says. “As much as they learn from QA and us, they learn from each other, creating a well-rounded education.”

Smart IT continues to support and grow its apprenticeship programme as a key business strategy. The company has even started working in the school community to help those still in education understand their options within the IT industry.

Andrew concludes: “When people think of coming into the IT industry, I want them to automatically consider an apprenticeship and even better one with Smart IT. I want them to know it’s exciting and accessible, no matter where they’re from or their experience. Apprenticeships are amazing for ‘learning and earning’, and with QA’s help, we hope to continue offering the opportunity to as many people as possible.”