Paul James takes his certificate and turns to face the photographer. The 22-year-old is smiling, as most people do at graduation ceremonies, and his proud mum is applauding from the audience.
Today is a special day for James, a celebration of his hard work and achievements on the Microsoft technology traineeship; he hasn’t had much to smile about lately, and the event at Microsoft’s UK headquarters is a chance to forget the hardships he faces at home.
“Right now we are struggling, but all the stress I’m under is helping me want to do better with my life and learn more. I want to do the best by my baby boy, make sure I give him a great life.”
James is unemployed with no qualifications, his girlfriend is due to give birth to their son within weeks, and unless they find a place to live in the next month they will be homeless.
“I’m worried about the future,” he confesses.
James has worked tirelessly over the past 12 weeks to make his future brighter and more certain. In March he was handed a place on the traineeship, a joint venture with training provider QA that aims to give young people a range of skills – from coding and cloud computing, to marketing and sales, while developing their employability, literacy and numeracy.
Traineeships help young people who are facing barriers to successful employment. The Microsoft scheme provides a mix of training and experience designed to connect trainees with opportunities in digital careers – an area of significant opportunity given the UK’s digital skills crisis. A Government report last year called for “urgent” investment in developing young people in the technology and IT sectors in order to spark a significant improvement of the digital skills gap for the next decade. It’s a mission Microsoft is invested in, too.
Earlier this year, the company launched a programme to teach digital skills to people across the UK to ensure the country remains one of the global leaders in cloud computing, artificial intelligence and other next-generation technologies.
James was the oldest of the 11 people on his traineeship course, with the youngest aged 16. He already had some digital skills before he stepped into Microsoft’s Reading office – he regularly vlogs to 20,000 followers on YouTube – but crucially he also learnt self-confidence and positivity.
“Before I went to Microsoft, I thought: ‘I’m good at computers, I’m good at promoting myself and my YouTube channel on social media, but how can I incorporate that into a job?’” he said.
“It wasn’t until I went to Microsoft that I realised my full potential. I learnt so much about myself there, it’s been a turnaround for me, in my life. It’s opened doors. I can achieve things I never thought I could achieve. I used to doubt myself and think: ‘I can’t do that’. I want to work in a big tech company but I thought I would never have the skills to do that. While I was there, they were like: ‘wow, you actually have great skills and they are all self-taught’.
“It boosted my confidence a lot. I had to stand up in front of a lot of people and talk, and I used to be really shy and scared. At the start of the course I was so nervous I would stutter all the time, speak really fast and then forget what I was talking about. But as the course progressed, I got more confident.”
His vlogging has changed course since he and his girlfriend, 20-year-old Jessica, found out they are expecting a baby. Talking online about his hopes and fears for his growing family has been a positive outlet for James amid a mountain of stress.
The couple have to leave their home in Maidenhead, despite the fact Jessica is just weeks away from giving birth. They need to find a place to live that’s reasonably priced and is suitable for a baby – no mean feat when James is also looking for a job. Jessica works at a school in Reading, teaching children phonics and maths. Jessica is proud of what James has achieved so far.
“She thinks it [the Microsoft programme] is a good thing. The only jobs I could get before this was working in shops, because I didn’t have any GCSEs. I have all these creative ideas and I need to be challenged. She’s really happy that I’ve found something I love doing. I’m always coming home saying: ‘I’ve done this, I’ve completed a Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS) exam, I’ve won this prize’.”
James has the Word and Powerpoint awards, which he can now show to potential employers. That’s on top of the countless workshops, projects and talks the trainees take part in. James threw himself into all of it. Sarah Foxall, Corporate Affairs Manager at Microsoft, noticed he was “committed” and “applied himself well” to the course.
“We did coding workshops on HTML5 and the micro:bit [a small, programmable computer developed by the BBC and 31 partners, including Microsoft]. I made a virtual pet, and I was really impressed with it,” James said.
“We were also asked to pretend we were selling a Microsoft product to a company. I chose HoloLens [Microsoft’s mixed-reality headset], and had to create a presentation, do some research and present it as if I was selling it to a car company.
“I also helped out on real Microsoft stuff, such as charity work. I helped come up with an idea for an event, and I made a PowerPoint presentation. I made a storyboard for a video to entice people to donate.”
“We had talks from Microsoft employees, in a range of sectors such as cybersecurity, marketing and digital marketing, which is what I want to go into.”
Learning all these new skills and being exposed to a workplace was invaluable to James, who failed his GCSEs twice while at school. For him, the Microsoft traineeship was different to traditional learning, and came at the right time.
“I used to get distracted a lot at school. I never used to mess around, but I was never able to focus on a specific task. It wasn’t until I turned 20 that I became more focused. I definitely feel like learning as an adult is a different experience to learning at school. I tend to learn easier and take more things in now. I feel like I’m getting better as I get older; a little wiser and smarter.
“I’m quite impressed with myself, how much I’ve learnt since being on this course.”
Microsoft Traineeship facts
- The traineeship programme between QA and Microsoft was launched in 2015
- The programme is delivered over 12-14 weeks and focuses on developing work readiness skills, and competencies for those who may lack the confidence, the qualifications or the experience to get into the world of work
- As well as extensive training and support, our programme includes a four-week period, where trainees participate in workshops, insight talks and listen to various presentations from employees across the Microsoft business
- This year, 13 learners were recruited via the programme, with 11 completing and graduating from the programme
- Two have been signposted to other agencies
- 12 remain with us and are working closely with our Apprenticeship team to secure an employer interview
- One trainee has secured an interview for a Systems and Networking apprenticeship
- In their four-week placement at Microsoft, trainees participate in workshops, insight talks, and project assignments
- Trainees also receive 1:1 from Microsoft volunteers, and opportunities to take Microsoft Certifications
- In the last 12 months, 23 young people participated in the Microsoft traineeship
- Trainees receive ongoing support from QA, to help them move into an apprenticeship, other employment or training
- For general information on Traineeships visit https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/traineeships-programme
After James had received his certificate and the graduation ceremony ended, his thoughts turned once again to the future. His priority is his girlfriend and soon-to-be-born son, but he would also like an apprenticeship with Microsoft. Along with countless others, he has applied for one of the places, completed all the interviews, and is now waiting to see if he has been successful.
“It’s my dream, working for my dream company,” he says.
Microsoft’s Foxall was at the graduation ceremony, and pointed out how important schemes such as these are for young people.
“We were very impressed with this group of young people, and their attitude and willingness to work hard to learn new skills was great to see. As demand for digital skills continues to grow, and more digital apprenticeships are offered, it’s important to help young people access the opportunity, including those with few qualifications.”
“These trainees have taken their first steps towards landing what I hope will be their dream jobs. But it all started with having access to a traineeship focused on digital skills, and the passion to learn those skills and use them.”
James echoed Foxall’s words, and encouraged others to apply for traineeships like the one offered by Microsoft.
“It’s a really great opportunity for any age, even if you’re not technically-minded. People think that because it’s Microsoft you have to know about technology, but you don’t, they will teach you.
“Microsoft is a great place because they will help you with anything you want to do. You get mentors, too. It doesn’t matter if you’re unsure what you want to do or if you don’t understand what marketing is, it’s a great opportunity to just try everything and you will find something that you love. Everything is at Microsoft. Just go for it.”
UPDATE: Since we wrote this article, Paul has secured an apprenticeship at Microsoft, Jessica has given birth to a healthy baby boy and the couple have moved in to a new home.