Apprenticeships in the Hot Seat

Northern Ireland is fast approaching a technology talent deficit with the 2017 NI Skills Barometer Report forecasting a need for an additional 400 engineering and technology graduates – and a similar number of maths and computer science graduates – each year to match the jobs expected to be added to the sector by 2026. A key aim of many local businesses, industry bodies and educators is therefore attracting talent into the industry and showcasing the benefits of a career in a STEM related field.

Leading telecoms and technology company eir Business NI, is one such company committed to boosting the technology talent pipeline. It typically employs, supports and mentors three apprentices from Belfast Met as full-time members of its Service Desk at any one time, alongside ongoing graduate and work experience opportunities.

Here, three of the firm’s current apprentices – James Kirkpatrick (JK), Ruairi O’Connor (RO’C) and Chris Murdock (CM) – give the inside track on what it’s like to be an apprentice.

Tell me about your role at eir Business NI?
CM: Ruairi and myself are Service Desk Analysts, while James is now a Network Operations Centre (NOC) Data Engineer. As Service Desk Analysts, we monitor the availability and performance of our customers’ networks and are their first port of call when they need support. We have the same role and responsibilities as full-time members of staff but as apprentices we also benefit from additional learning opportunities, mentoring and support.
RO’C: As of late with frequent bad weather conditions, our job also involves contact with NIE to know if there are power outages. We continue to monitor such cases throughout the day and ensure customers are kept updated with expected repair times.
JK: On top of our day to day roles, we are also involved in training new team members on tasks such as handling client calls and customer requests. eir is a very collaborative and team focused business, we all work closely together to make sure customers have the support they require.

Why would you recommend an apprenticeship?
JK: It’s the ideal opportunity to get practical work experience while expanding your knowledge. For me it’s been great to learn from IT professionals with long-standing careers and gain the academic and professional credentials needed for rapid career development.
RO’C: We also get to experience what working in a business is like, and how companies work. You don’t get a sense of that at university in the same way. The mentoring is great too – if there’s anything you don’t understand then there is someone more experienced in the office that’s willing to help and talk you through it.
CM: It has helped me to expand my skillset and knowledge, and offers a great opportunity in terms of hands-on experience in a field or career that you’re interested in. The mix of learning on the job, interacting with experienced professionals and attending college has been invaluable – it gives a real in-depth experience of the career you’re after.

What are your plans for the future?
JK: Within six months of commencing my apprenticeship with eir Business NI, I quickly became a key member of the service desk, completing my apprenticeship and achieving my Cisco Certified Network Associate Routing & Switching (CCNA) qualification. This presented me with the opportunity to successfully apply for a role within the NOC and progress to my Professional level qualification. My goal is to expand this skillset further and gain more Cisco qualifications
RO’C: I hope to progress to a more technical role, ideally within eir’s Network Operations Centre and I’m working towards achieving the qualifications I need to make this a reality.
CM: Like Ruairi, I have gained a number of MTA certifications and am keen gain a position within the eir NOC team once I achieve my CCNA. I would like to take up a team leader position within the service desk – given the ongoing technology and telecoms advancements that businesses must adapt to and embrace, it’s an industry that you can build a successful career in if you are committed to learning.

Do you think there are any skills you have gained from being an apprentice that you would not have gained through university?
JK: Being an apprentice means I have hands-on, practical ICT experience in a business environment. I can identify problems and know what to do to solve them. University is a lot more conceptual – even doing work experience or doing lab classes at university I feel doesn’t prepare you for doing work, day in, day out, within a business.
RO’C: I agree with James – being an apprentice means I have technical, practical experience. I would add that an apprenticeship also helps give you confidence. A work or office environment can be a little intimidating at first but working in a team environment is now second nature to us.

If you were speaking to someone considering an apprenticeship, what advice would you give them?
JK: Go for it! Make sure you are ready for the world of work. You need to be able to challenge yourself in your job and at college.
RO’C: You don’t get many university courses that will pay you while you learn, so if you love the subject your apprenticeship is in, then it’s a great route to a full-time career.
CM: The ability to experience everything first hand – how something works and how to fix it – is a great advantage over sitting in a classroom. Digital technology is creating growth in Northern Ireland, enhancing the way businesses work, so there are plenty of opportunities out there for anyone willing to grasp them.

Speaking about the importance of apprentices, Diane Giles, Service Director at eir Business NI:
Inspiring and nurturing the next generation of telecoms talent is essential if we are to establish the talent pipeline needed our local technology sector. We work closely with Belfast Met to deliver an apprenticeship programme that provides students with expert technology knowledge while teaching them how to work in a business environment and with customers. Classroom based learning coupled with hands-on, practical experience gained through working alongside eir’s experienced professionals, ensures that our apprentices are ready for a career in the fast-paced world of telecoms.”