How degree apprenticeships could win the battle to boost diversity in UK tech

People from black, asian and ethnic minority backgrounds account for just 4% of the UK tech workforce, but degree apprenticeship programmes have the power and reach to increase diversity across the sector.

It’s been estimated that there are 600,000 tech job vacancies in the UK, a figure that is forecast to leap to 1 million by 2020 – and they can’t all be staffed by people who look and act the same way.

With this digital skills shortage costing the UK economy £63bn a year in lost GDP,according to a report by the Edge Foundation education charity, tech companies are casting their recruitment nets more widely and seeking to hire people from a broader range of ethnic backgrounds. Just 4% of the UK tech workforce is black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME), according to Colorintech, an organisation that aims to make the sector more inclusive.

The industry is missing out on an enormous pool of talent. In 2011, BAME people accounted for about 14% of the total population of England and Wales, and this number is expected to reach nearly 30% by 2051.

“We have so many technology vacancies that we cannot recruit quickly enough,” says Dara Kirton, a champion for diversity and inclusion at PwC – including in tech consulting, for data analytics, artificial intelligence and blockchain-related roles.

PwC is trying to become a more ethnically diverse organisation. It’s been voluntarily publishing it’s ethnicity pay gap since 2016, and has a clear action plan in place to drive progress on diversity and inclusion. Kirton’s the chief of staff for PwC’s Experience Centre in the UK, which brings talent from across disciplines together to help clients create experiences for their customers and staff.

“It’s the right thing to do, and diversity can have a significant positive impact on business results,” she says. Kirton believes that diverse teams lead to products and services that appeal to a broader customer base.

To help achieve this, in 2018 PwC launched the technology degree apprenticeship programme in partnership with five leading universities across the UK. Students will combine university study with hands-on workplace training. They are paid a salary throughout the four-year course, which helps eliminate the financial barriers to opportunity for some. On completion, they earn a BSc degree in computer science, data science or software engineering – and a job at PwC, should they perform well.

The apprenticeships may help change perceptions of a career in technology. BAME communities typically prioritise traditional jobs such as medicine, law and finance over tech,says Sunil Patel, chief operating officer of technology and investments at PwC.

He grew up among an Indian community in the East Midlands. When he graduated from the University of Manchester with a BSc in computer science in the late 1980s, and started work as a healthcare and life sciences consultant, his parents “could not explain” what he did for a living.

“There’s a reluctance in BAME communities to accept those new career options because the work is intangible and invisible,” he says. “An engineer builds things, a doctor saves lives, but you cannot touch code.”

It does not help, he adds, that there’s a lack of visible BAME technology leaders to whom young people can relate to and aspire to emulate. Only 8.5% of senior tech leaders were from a BAME background, according to a 2018 report by Inclusive Boards.

But Patel expects a high proportion of BAME people to feature in PwC’s apprenticeships, since the programmes tear down the educational attainment barrier to tech. Although many BAME people take Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) GCSEs, they remain less likely to go on to university than their white peers, limiting the pipeline of talent for tech firms that require degrees.

“We are developing the BAME workforce of the future,” says Patel. “If we went to the jobs market as it stands, we would not be able to find them.”

PwC has partnered with UKBlackTech, which aims to increase BAME representation in the industry and make the UK tech sector the most diverse globally. A major objective of the partnership is to inspire those from non-tech backgrounds (regardless of age or experience) to pursue tech careers. They have already jointly hosted Tech Insight and networking events across the country, giving access to role models and discussions on career opportunities in technology. The next interactive event takes place on 5 September in London, focused on helping those attending to really think about their personal brand and what they can do to ensure they are doing as much as they can to progress their tech career.

“It’s all about building a diverse network of tech people – something that may be harder in BAME communities, as they may not have a high proportion of tech workers,” says Patel.

This support does not stop once people are hired. PwC has a Multicultural Business Network (MBN) that promotes, supports and champions inclusion and diversity in the organisation through personal development. Part of PwC’s action plan on diversity and inclusion also involves progression coaches providing career sponsorship and advice for high-potential BAME directors.

As the MBN also does community engagement, as a sponsor, Kirton believes the network will create a virtuous circle: “Giving people fair access to career opportunities, sponsorship and mentoring are the only ways to create real, systemic and sustainable change across the technology industry,” she says.

Following the publication of this article, we would like to add that our Technology Apprentices are 14% BAME compared to the U.K technology workforce which is 4%.