Big benefits for small businesses with the University of Nottingham’s data science degree apprenticeship

Thanks to the rapid development of automated systems and data gathering within the business landscape, organisations across a range of industries now generate ‘big data’ as part of their operations – but many recognise they are not leveraging this data to its full advantage.
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One way in which this is slowly changing is through the growth of an industry solution which could help boost the digital and data expertise of new recruits and existing employees already working in data science, namely data scientist degree apprenticeships.

Whilst traditionally associated with the construction, engineering and motor vehicle trades, recent developments have seen the advent of apprenticeships comprising advanced academic study.

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In 2016, level six and seven – bachelor’s and master’s degree level – apprenticeships were introduced as a new way for businesses to develop employees with specialist higher-level skills, knowledge and behaviours.

The apprenticeships offer skills for businesses of all sizes. Photo: Alex WilkinsonThe apprenticeships offer skills for businesses of all sizes. Photo: Alex Wilkinson
The apprenticeships offer skills for businesses of all sizes. Photo: Alex Wilkinson

Data science degree apprenticeships help businesses secure their data science talent pipelines by ensuring best practice, fostering efficient working, and enabling businesses to move towards data driven decision-making models.

Furthermore, while many might assume the majority of demand for such programmes would come from big business, statistics from the University of Nottingham suggest the number of small-to-medium businesses taking advantage of this cost-effective route to bringing specialist skills in-house is growing.

In 2021, there were no small/medium-sized businesses training apprentices on the university’s data scientist apprenticeship, but by 2022, more than quarter of apprentices starting on the programme were from SMEs.

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The change is welcomed by Lizzy Martin, university employer engagement manager.

University of Nottingham students studying data science. Photo: Alex WilkinsonUniversity of Nottingham students studying data science. Photo: Alex Wilkinson
University of Nottingham students studying data science. Photo: Alex Wilkinson

She said: “For businesses who are looking to grow and expand their offering, the combination of investing in new skills, coupled with offering a degree from a world-class university (QS World University Rankings 2024) at no cost to the employee, supports businesses to attract, retain and develop the staff who are going to take their business forward.

“However, while general trends in this area are positive we want local businesses to know that these programmes are for businesses like theirs.

“We are open to smaller businesses, regional businesses. This is not something just for large corporates.”

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The university’s apprenticeships’ combination of practical, on-the-job experience and relevant, rigorous study, brings benefits for both employer and employee.

Apprentices on Nottingham’s Data Science Degree Apprenticeship delivering real-time benefits to their organisation through work-based projects. Photo: Alex WilkinsonApprentices on Nottingham’s Data Science Degree Apprenticeship delivering real-time benefits to their organisation through work-based projects. Photo: Alex Wilkinson
Apprentices on Nottingham’s Data Science Degree Apprenticeship delivering real-time benefits to their organisation through work-based projects. Photo: Alex Wilkinson

Apprentices are employees of the business they work for but are given time away from work – within their contracted working hours – to concentrate on developing professional skills, knowledge and behaviours

The academic elements of the programme are grounded in real work, with apprentices on Nottingham’s data science degree apprenticeship delivering real-time benefits to their organisation through work-based projects and the introduction of new research-based processes.

The benefits have been experienced first-hand by David Hook, chief operating officer at Cosy Direct, which recruited a talented school-leaver to join the team and study the data science degree apprenticeship at the university in 2022.

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The number of degree-level apprenticeships continues to grow. Photo: Alex WilkinsonThe number of degree-level apprenticeships continues to grow. Photo: Alex Wilkinson
The number of degree-level apprenticeships continues to grow. Photo: Alex Wilkinson
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Mr Hook said: “Not even a year into the programme, we are seeing six-figure savings on our overheads due to the work of our apprentice.

“As an e-commerce business we had so much data from our different departments – being able to bring that together in an organised way that can be understood and reported on efficiently gives us a single source of truth for data in the business.”

Statistics also reinforce the positive impact of degree apprenticeships.

The number of degree-level – level six and seven – apprenticeships continues to grow as more businesses see the benefit of investing in higher-level skills via this route.

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The number of people starting degree apprenticeships increased by almost 10 per cent in 2022-23, accounting for 15 per cent of all apprenticeship starts to date for 2022-23.

More specifically, figures from the Department for Education show the data scientist degree apprenticeship saw a huge 66 per cent increase in starts from 2020-21 to 2021-22.

This quick growth mirrors the trajectory of the level-four data analyst apprenticeship which was launched in 2016 and quickly gained popularity.

Ruth Eccles, university head of degree apprenticeships, said: “We are seeing national trends reflected in our own numbers, with our data scientist degree apprenticeship becoming increasingly popular.

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“Some of the businesses we work with have developed their staff via the level-four data analyst apprenticeship and are now looking for that next step to take the skills, knowledge and behaviours of those talented employees to the next level.”

Degree apprenticeship programmes are designed by industry to tackle acute skills gaps in industry.

Bringing specialist higher-level skills, knowledge and behaviours into the workforce, either by upskilling existing employees or injecting fresh new talent, supports businesses to invest in early career talent who have been shaped within the culture of their organisations.

By the time an apprentice finishes their programme they have an in-depth knowledge of their field, several years’ practical experience, and are already valued as proven members of the workforce.

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In addition to the tangible work benefits, degree apprenticeships are also a cost-effective way for businesses to develop staff.

Eligible businesses with a wage bill above £3 million already pay the apprenticeship levy, which can be used to fund programmes.

Meanwhile, eligible smaller businesses with a wage bill under £3m can get up to 100 per cent funding, with 95 per cent co-investment being the norm).

This funding mechanism makes degree apprenticeship a very attractive option financially to businesses, who can benefit from a huge proportion of the fees being covered by the Government, and individual apprentices, who are not required to pay tuition fees.

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