In today’s fast-changing and competitive world, businesses need to constantly adapt and innovate to thrive. Terms like the Fourth Industrial Revolution or 4IR have become synonymous with business transformation marked by connectivity, advanced analytics, automation, and cutting-edge manufacturing technologies.

Businesses that actively encourage continuous learning to upskill employees will reap the benefits of improved performance, productivity, creativity, and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.

Take data analytics as an example. Levels of demand for data analysis skills vary across different sectors, and not everyone needs to become a data scientist, but a basic level of data literacy is ever more important in almost every role in increasingly 'data-rich' environments. Data-driven insights can inform important business decisions, such as when to launch a new product or how to improve the bottom line.

A recent survey of businesses in Scotland by the Scottish Funding Council showed there is huge demand for tailored business skills, but little understanding of the resources available or recruitment tactics which can be employed to upskill the workforce.

One very cost-effective route for employers to consider is the graduate apprenticeship programme. Graduate Apprenticeships (GA’s) are mostly undergraduate degree-level qualifications. They are a tripartite between employers, universities and apprentices in a careful balance of both full-time paid employment and full-time studies with the university.  

GA programmes are a common route in engineering, indeed 60.7% of all Graduate Apprenticeship enrolments in 2021/22 were in a STEM related framework, but often overlooked as a solution for ‘softer’, yet crucial, business skills such as data literacy.

To have someone embedded in the workplace with access to a university environment is a great way of infusing new skills into the business. Their academic assessments can be tailored to business needs and employers benefit from the immediate transfer of learning into the workplace.

The BA (Hons) Business Management (Graduate Apprenticeship) course at Queen Margaret University requires GA employees to attend campus for lectures on day release, one day a week during two 10 week terms of teaching each year. As a guide, employers should allow staff to commit about 20% of their time to their studies, which includes the term time day release.

A QMU Business Management Graduate Apprentice has access to modules such as ‘Digital Business & Innovation’, reflecting on technology-based disruption, innovation and business opportunities; ‘Business Law’ and ‘Ethics, Governance and Sustainability’, addressing challenges around GDPR and responsible business behaviour; ‘Project Management’ and ‘Strategy as Practice’, understanding operations, data flows and longer term considerations and implications of data. Knowledge in these areas have direct practical applications in modern business environments.

Apprenticeships attract highly driven school leavers but are also a great way of motivating and retaining existing employees at different career and education stages; for example, it is possible for those with further education qualifications such as an HND, to be considered for advanced standing in the four-year degree.

By embracing continuous learning and by encouraging employees to learn new things and share their ideas, businesses can foster a culture of innovation and collaboration, and stimulate creativity and problem-solving.

Thomas is Head of Queen Margaret Business School and Senior Lecturer in Management with a focus on International Marketing and Entrepreneurship.

This article was first published in Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s Business Comment Magazine in December 2023

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