The Second Machine Age

In a fast-changing world how can education keep up with the demands of the digital industry and the new technological age?

QA | 30 August 2017

IT Degree Apprenticeships – An Education for “The Second Machine Age”?

We’ve all seen the headlines about digital, tech and STEM skills gaps in the UK and how reforming education is critical to address this – firstly to prepare our young people for the future, and secondly for the benefit of our economy.

In a fast-changing world how can education keep up with the demands of the digital industry and the new technological age?

Head of Business Development at QA Apprenticeships, Ben Sweetman discusses the opportunity Degree apprenticeships, and the apprenticeship levy bring the UK in the Second Machine Age.

"I’ve just finished reading “The Second Machine Age” ( by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and it blew my tiny little mind. This article is my best attempt to collect up the pieces and put them back together in some sort of order. If you read nothing else in this post, please read this next sentence.

This is the best business or business-related book I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever. I thoroughly recommend it.

On to the book…

At its core, it sets out that if the Industrial Revolution was the “First Machine Age”, then the current Technological Revolution is the second one, and it is already absolutely dwarfing the first.

We are in a phase of exponential innovation driving unimaginable progress and wealth creation, which builds on the technical foundations laid over the previous decades. When you consider the current progress of machine learning, smartphones, 3D printers, robotics, chatbots and autonomous vehicles, we are already living in a sci-fi future, and it’s only going to accelerate.

Progress and automation shaping the job landscape

All of these innovations make our day-to-day lives better, but they do have impacts in other areas.

Technological progress and automation have changed the nature and number of jobs in existing industries. Brynjolfsson and McAfee particularly focus on the fact that certain routine jobs are being replaced by technology and so “skill biased technical change” affects all roles and occupations. Routine tasks can be replicated through technology (whether they are manual or cognitive), so the job roles that remain increasingly involve non-routine tasks and require a distinct set of skills that a computer or robot cannot replicate.

A University degree is a major differentiator in this new world and this goes some way to explain why social mobility has got worse in the US and hasn’t improved in the UK. Studying to degree level has its own inherent barriers around cost and previous qualifications at A level that limit who can access the skills the technological age needs.

“Race with machines, not against them” – Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s recommendations

The key to succeeding in the Second Machine Age is to “race with machines, not against them”, by combining human creativity with unprecedented computing power. In its simplest sense, computers still only do what a human tells it to do, be it a user or a programmer. Computers are very poor at being creative, innovative or understanding the world around us – so we still need humans to do these things!

Unsurprisingly, Brynjolfsson and McAfee believe reforming education is critical to prepare our young people for the future. Not only should we be teaching more technical skills to create developers and engineers of the Second Machine Age, but we should also be encouraging and educating everyone in creativity, innovation and pattern recognition in large data sets.

They also say to governments “if you must tax, tax well”, which made me think of the apprenticeship levy. Whilst employers would rather they weren’t taxed, there are few better investments than in improved technical and professional education for the long-term health of the economy and our companies.

So, why are IT Degree Apprenticeships the answer?

In a world that is changing this fast, no traditional approach to technical education can ever hope to produce graduates that assimilate seamlessly into the workplace. Consider a traditional degree is 3 years long. We already know that more data will be processed and stored in the next 2 years than in the entire prior history of mankind.

The work is the learning content

It’s not that we at QA have a unique insight. It’s just that by integrating work and education in a Degree apprenticeship, we can ensure that the changing work context shapes the learning far more than the taught content. At QA, we have tried to push beyond that in some areas. Our final year modules are intentionally a little more futuristic; our best effort to predict early stage trends that will become the must have skills of the future. We include DevOps, the Internet of Things, Data Science, Cyber Security, and Cloud Computing in our Degree Apprenticeship, and critically combine all of these into a holistic Technology Strategy module to give young people the skills they need to “race with machines”. We have also included a very high proportion of work-based approaches to our apprenticeship assessment to maximise the dialogue between work and education.

Blended approach to education

We’ve also been able to innovate how we deliver our Degree Apprenticeship. We teach year-round (no long summer holidays), we teach long (business) days, and we are exploiting the power of technology to deliver a blended learning approach. We use the best products available to deliver “mobile-first” education – accessed on any device, anywhere – so learning fits around a job, rather than getting in the way. By delivering a large amount of online content, apprentices can prepare ahead of face-to-face training so we maximise the benefit of human interaction when they attend their intensive two day workshops with our expert lecturers. (I’ve heard this called the “flipped classroom” model.)

Social mobility

Degree apprenticeships open up an affordable, highly relevant route to a degree for a much wider range of people – they are a route for both young candidates fresh into their career, and those changing or accelerating their careers within the industry. This is profound – apprenticeships have been tremendous for a long time, but the route to a degree through the vocational model is a game changer. I believe that the QA model of “GCSE to Degree” is particularly powerful for improving social mobility, because we don’t just recruit those with 300 UCAS points, who would have gone to University anyway. From trainees without GCSEs to thousands of Advanced Apprentices with GCSEs, we’re opening up a new progression route for all of them.

What can we take away from all this?

Taking all of this into account, there are major challenges but I wholeheartedly believe that we are providing exceptional opportunities for young people to set themselves up for life in well-paid roles at the most exciting stage of the Second Machine Age.

The apprenticeship levy presents an opportunity for businesses to invest in apprenticeships to become agile in developing the skills the Second Machine Age demands, at the pace the industry needs (to be able to “race with machines”, if you will). Not only that, but to be able to diversify your workforce, become more productive as a business and boost the UK economy whilst being at the forefront of advances in technology – makes it a very exciting time to be in this industry.”

Find out more about our Degree Apprenticeships here
Find out more about the apprenticeship levy here
Contact our apprenticeship experts today at to see what Degree apprentices could do for your business

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