Making apprenticeships work at Arm for the future of HPC
With the growth agenda so central to the UK’s economic ambitions, the contribution that High-Performance Compute (HPC) can make to the highest value sectors has never been more important. However, like much of the technology industry, finding skilled professionals who can support both the provision and development of HPC facilities in the UK is a challenge. Without a workforce that can grow to match the demands of HPC as an economic enabler, the country’s ability to realise its full potential will be limited.
Arm is an employer looking for technical recruits in HPC as well as other computing and engineering sub-disciplines, and has been working on ways to grow the talent available in the UK. We are working to grow the pipeline of technically trained workers with multiple interventions, such as our support for the micro:bit and Raspberry Pi foundations, the National Centre for Computing Education and direct engagement with the local school community in the places we work. Globally, we are building Arm Education, which offers a growing set of resources to help educators teach Computing and to reduce the fear that some may feel.
However, we face an immediate challenge in recruiting and over the past few years have turned to the Apprenticeship programme to grow the size of the potential workforce. Because this lowers the barriers to entry for a career around compute, it also helps increase diversity and social mobility and which in turn will allow more talented people to enter the sector sooner.
Why digital apprenticeships?
Digital Apprenticeships have the potential to redefine how tech companies attract, engage and retain talent. Apprenticeships offer a wider and more diverse pipeline of talent from pools not often engaged with in typical recruitment. Apprentices come from a wide range of backgrounds and experiences and bring with them a diversity of thought, ability and experience which can enhance how companies operate and how they engage with their customers. Diversity, equity, inclusion and social mobility are often the overarching driver of adopting apprenticeships and the benefits to the business can be profound. According to the 2021 Apprenticeships Evaluation report from the Department for Education:
- 85% of employers said apprenticeships helped them develop skills relevant to their organisation
- 78% of employers said apprenticeships helped them improve productivity
- 64% of employers said apprenticeships brought new ideas into their organisation
- A way to recruit the best talent, sooner
- Provide managerial experience for current team and enhance and develop their skills
- To increase staff retention, engagement and commitment
A legacy of assumptions
Apprenticeships often suffer from assumptions made around who they are for and what they cover. It is assumed they are only for school leavers, those not destined for university or are only in roles involving manual labour or unskilled work. The reality is very different. The digital apprenticeships, coupled with the experience of real work in a technical team leads to highly engaged, highly skilled staff with more experience of your business than a typical graduate. The makeup of apprenticeship cohorts is certainly different too, this diversity enables and encourages social mobility and moves away from the potential group think of monoculturalism. The tides are changing, and we are starting to see a shift in how apprenticeships are perceived by parents, learners, educators and employers.
What is a Digital Apprenticeship?
Digital apprenticeships come in many forms, from intermediate apprenticeships at level 2 (equivalent to 5 GCSEs), advanced apprenticeships (equivalent to 2 A Levels), higher/degree apprenticeships (equivalent to a foundation degree at level 4, a full degree at level 6 and a Masters at level 7).
At Arm we have three types of apprentices:
- Level 4 Software Developer (an 18 month course in a technical team leading to a foundation degree)
- Level 6 Software Engineer (a 3 year course rotating round teams leading to a degree in Software Engineering)
- Level 7 Graduate (a 2 year course leading to a Masters in various subjects)
The apprentices study a course as laid out in the apprenticeship standards covering a broad range technical content as found in University Degree courses in Computer Science and Software Engineering and also include specialisms. The course is delivered by registered training organisations and they are paid from your (or others) levy contributions. Whilst the training is paid for by the levy, the wages and other associated costs are not.
The benefit to the apprentice is obvious:
- They get a recognised qualification (up to degree/masters level)
- Earn a salary from day one
- The qualification is paid by the employer which means no student debt
- First hand industry experience
- Opportunity to learn from seasoned professionals
- Paid annual leave
- Time during work hours to complete your qualification
- 1-to-1 support from your colleagues, tutor and line manager
Enhancing the curriculum
One area to consider when setting up an apprenticeship program is what additional learning content is needed to make your apprentice as work ready as possible. Apprentices come from diverse backgrounds and can range from school leavers (who may not have studied Computing) through to career changers who have worked in tech before. We had to quickly develop an internal curriculum to support our learners in the basics of programming and all the associated tools we use in addition to the typical onboarding learning. Other options include using a coding bootcamp in your desired language to fully immerse learners before they join their teams. It is also worth taking the time to ensure the mentors and line managers of the apprentices are aware of how to support apprentices effectively and how this may differ from a grad or experienced hire. Pastoral care is also important, and this affords a great opportunity for aspiring managers to take on a coaching and support role, especially with school leaver age apprentices who will inevitably need a little more support than a mature career changer.
Project Based Learning (PBL)
Another way to enhance the apprentice experience, especially at the begging of the apprenticeship is to create some PBL projects for your apprentices to collaborate on. These are typically stand-alone projects that are contextualised to your business with a specified problem set or success criteria and apprentices are tasked with delivering a solution. The project can be an abstraction of a ‘real’ business product or something real that needs doing quickly. This allows the apprentices to collaborate and develop vital industry skills as well as professional soft skills, especially if you get them to look at business improvement problems or where efficiencies can be made which they present back to the team.
We have been deploying our apprentices across the engineering business, all contributing to Arm’s growth as a leading provider of compute technology whether by helping in the development of new compute subsystems or in the maintenance of test infrastructure. Some have been deployed within our HPC organisation and have played key roles in our ability to service that market. For example, Luke Ireland joined us as a Level 6 apprentice in 2017. In the various rotations he completed as an apprentice, he spent time working across a range of HPC products as well as in unrelated parts of the business to develop a rounded perspective on engineering at Arm. Now coming to the end of his time in Arm’s Graduate Rotation Programme, he will shortly be taking up a full time position working on the team behind Arm’s HPC-specific compiler.
We have been really impressed with how our apprentices are performing in their teams and some managers are reporting that their apprentices are as capable as the experienced engineers in their team. The mixture of formal learning coupled with on the job learning clearly works and whilst the learning curve is steep and route into the business is not yet widely adopted the level of proficiency and productivity is demonstrably a good return on investment. Our apprentices are plugging a critical gap and whilst needing a little support initially, they are flourishing into valuable members of the team and are enabling us to build a new workforce with training that is bespoke the needs of our sector. Based on our experience with Luke and others, we are continuing to develop recruitment into our apprenticeship programme and are pleased to have found a new pathway for
The traditional routes into HPC through academia and industry are not going away, but by providing a direct-to-employer accredited training model, Apprenticeships can offer access to a pool of talent not previously tapped by the industry.
Future of Compute Week 2022
During this week we will deep-dive into a number of themes that if addressed could develop our large scale compute infrastructure to support the UK’s ambitions as a science and technology superpower. To find out more, including how to get involved, click the link below
Laura is techUK’s Head of Programme for Technology and Innovation.
She supports the application and expansion of emerging technologies, including Quantum Computing, High-Performance Computing, AR/VR/XR and Edge technologies, across the UK. As part of this, she works alongside techUK members and UK Government to champion long-term and sustainable innovation policy that will ensure the UK is a pioneer in science and technology
Before joining techUK, Laura worked internationally as a conference researcher and producer covering enterprise adoption of emerging technologies. This included being part of the strategic team at London Tech Week.
Laura has a degree in History (BA Hons) from Durham University, focussing on regional social history. Outside of work she loves reading, travelling and supporting rugby team St. Helens, where she is from.
Rory joined techUK in June 2023 after three years in the Civil Service on its Fast Stream leadership development programme.
During this time, Rory worked on the Government's response to Covid-19 (NHS Test & Trace), school funding strategy (Department for Education) and international climate and nature policy (Cabinet Office). He also tackled the social care crisis whilst on secondment to techUK's Health and Social Care programme in 2022.
Before this, Rory worked in the House of Commons and House of Lords alongside completing degrees in Political Economy and Global Politics.
Today, he is techUK's Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, covering dozens of technologies including metaverse, drones, future materials, robotics, blockchain, space technologies, nanotechnology, gaming tech and Web3.0.