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In this piece, experts from Leeds City College, one of the largest further education institutions in the country, offer tips on how to progress your tech career using vocational education.

If you’re considering reaching a career milestone in 2023, now’s a better time than ever to do so. Not only has the digital and technology industry evolved, but so have the ways for you to get your foot in the door and climb the ladder, and do it in a way that’s right for you.

In years gone by, building a career in digital and IT would have simply involved studying a degree. While this is still a valuable way of gaining your tech credentials, today’s education market offers a range of other options to build up your knowledge, increase your confidence through real-life experience, and score some major CV points. One of these ways is through vocational further education.

What is vocational education?

Vocational education is training designed around the skills you require for a particular job role or industry. It can often be associated with 16 to 18 year olds (a common misconception), but there are plenty of courses for adults and they’re an excellent way to continue improving and reaching your goals.

So whether you’re laying down the groundwork for a digital profession, making a career change, or looking to reach your next level of expertise, here’s how to level up your tech career, recommended by some of the education sector’s vocational experts.

Do it with a digital course

Lee Chadwick, Head of Digital & IT at Leeds City College, says that one way to launch your career is with a vocational qualification like a diploma, T Level or BTEC, especially as a lot of colleges nowadays are using their curriculum to address the underrepresentation of women in tech and help more to gain access to this exciting field.

Digital courses can provide deep skills development in a range of areas, including software programming, digital graphics, web design, networking and digital forensics. As well as teaching you specialist skills, vocational qualifications also teach skills that are applicable across the world in every industry, ultimately making you employable.”

Another thing to bear in mind is that colleges conduct regular reviews to ensure their courses are relevant to both industry needs and your future career progress. This means that as well as gaining the right skills, you also gain key industry contacts – partnerships at Leeds City College include Microsoft, IBM, XDesign and Amazon Web Services.

If you’re considering doing a digital course, Lee says: “Do it! Let us not forget, the very first computer programmer was a woman; Ada Lovelace – a future trailblazer and an icon that changed computing forever. With fewer women in digital and information technologies, the landscape would continue to be unequal and underdeveloped.”

Consider your local community centre

You might like the idea of returning to education, but worry about the expense or fitting it around your existing schedule. “This is something a lot of our students say when they first come and see us”, says Joanne Dye, Director of Curriculum and Operations for Leeds City College’s Adult and Community provision. “People, especially women, are surprised when they learn they can come to evening classes, study online or even commit to doing one day a week.”

That’s flexible learning ticked but what sort of courses can you find at a community centre? “Website development is a career you can progress through community learning”, Joanne explains. “We offer a Coding for Beginners course for adults who want to take the first step towards computer programming and learn a coding language, such as Python. Along with face-to-face or online tutoring, students are given a range of different exercises, like coding games and online quizzes, that they can complete in their own time.”

Community centres may also help you save money when it comes to course costs. “Fees can vary depending on the qualification level, but many courses are under £100 or even free. It’s always worth looking at what your local centre offers.”

As for any final advice for women launching a tech career, Jo says:

“Choose courses that also teach transferable IT skills, which will help you to build confidence in other areas and open up your career prospects. And just go for it – the world really is your oyster!”

Earn and build experience with an apprenticeship

You don’t need to learn in the classroom to further your tech career. Lee Pryor, Director of Apprenticeships at Luminate Education Group, says apprenticeships are a great way to prepare for a future job role, upskill, or even reskill. “Digital apprenticeships are one way of creating a workforce that brings different skills and ideas to the table. They are especially ideal because you’re learning on the job, working with others in your profession and earning at the same time. There are so many avenues you can go down: digital marketing, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, to name but a few.”

Apprenticeships come in four levels: intermediate, advanced, higher and degree. The best way to think about these is to match each level with where you are in your career. Intermediate apprenticeships are ideal for candidates who are new to the industry, whereas higher apprenticeships are for senior roles and degree (or master’s degree) apprenticeships relate to more senior specialist roles.

Digital apprenticeships can be done through a college, or through a company’s own recruitment scheme, so it’s always worthwhile checking the websites of any organisations you have your eye on. And just like course providers, digital apprenticeship providers stay up- to- date with the industry: “We pride ourselves on working with employers to ensure we’re teaching the right knowledge and developing the workforce of the future. We also have digital employees on our employer board who provide feedback on our curriculum.”

When it comes to final tips, Lee says: “Do your research. Research the role you want, the employer and also the apprenticeship itself. If you need extra help, don’t rule out speaking to your current employer – they might contribute to the employer apprenticeship levy and already have funding in place.”

Do a course that gets you to university in a year

Not everyone has the right entry requirements for university, which can feel frustrating if you’ve set your heart on doing a degree. Fortunately, it’s no longer either/or when it comes to further and higher education – you can now use one to help you reach the other.

“There are so many ways women can get into engineering these days”, says Mitch Scott, Head of Engineering at Leeds City College. “One vocational route is through an Access to Higher Education course, which allows you to progress to university after a year of study at college.”

Access to HE courses can also help you to change careers or learn about a different subject area. “They are a great route if you want to gain academic knowledge and technical skills, whilst learning about how to approach study at university level.” explains Mitch. “Everything you learn you will go on to develop on your degree.”

As for why we need more women engineers, Mitch says:

“At the moment women only make up 16.5% of all engineers, but there’s a sea of female talent out there that the wider industry could be tapping into. Digital engineering, for example, is already revolutionising the engineering industry and is perfect for anyone with a tech or engineering background. It really is an exciting time to think about working in tech.”

Leeds City College is one of the biggest providers of apprenticeships regionally and is part of Luminate Education Group, which consists of Leeds City College, University Centre Leeds, Leeds Sixth Form College, Keighley College, Harrogate College and Leeds Conservatoire.

To find out more about digital courses at Leeds City College, visit their website.