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The chips that pave Whittington's streets

Nick Holdsworth reports on two new recruits to the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. Alan Barker is serving his apprenticeship in time-honoured fashion.

The 18-year-old from Walton on Thames is learning the skills of his trade under a master of a City of London livery company. But his is not an ancient craft like those of the skinners, glovers, tanners or cutlers.

Alan is an apprentice computer technologist with Surrey-based firm StorageTek and his four-year indentured training is being done under the direction of the newest in a long and venerable line of City institutions, the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists.

The WITC became the 100th liveried company three years ago when it formally received its coat of arms and livery - the robes of offices and other regalia which are the hallmarks of these craft associations of Freemen of the City of London. It has taken to its task of promoting information technology, supporting education and charities with gusto.

Alan Benjamin, a past master of the company who helped set it up, is a passionate supporter of Britain's young computer and information technologists. He also believes there are tangible benefits to be gained from the ever-better application of IT within the City, industry, commerce and education.

The retired director of Sema Group, one of Europe's largest computer software companies, Mr Benjamin now devotes much of his energy to encouraging the use of IT as a tool for greater business efficiency and as a medium of education.

The WCIT's apprenticeship scheme - whose first trainees will graduate to become Freemen of the City of London after completing Higher National Certificates, City and Guilds or other vocational qualifications, next year - is just one of the company's educational efforts. Its education panel has adopted three schools, including King's School, Grantham, to advise on the use of IT and its implementation within the curriculum.

Mr Benjamin, a former governor of Tower Hamlets College of FE and a director of the London Symphony Orchestra, is hesitant about whether the WCIT should be contributing to the national policy debate over training and technical skills in the UK. However, he admits that the company, which includes "the cream of Britain's computer firms"- and Microsoft's Bill Gates as an honorary freeman - is considering this. "We certainly have the capability, but are debating whether we have the role of commenting on policy matters."

Liveried companies have a rather conservative and sometimes secretive image associated more in the popular imagination with posh black-tie dinners in the Square Mile and the pomp and ceremony of the City of London's Lord Mayor's parade. The companies, which have a lineage going back to the mercers - Dick Whittington was a past master - also play a key role in electing sheriffs and the Lord Mayor.

But the information technologists' company, like the architects, air pilots and engineers, also newer companies, is very much a working organisation, keen to use the strength of the old to support the new.

Campbell McGarvie is the master in charge of two apprentices at StorageTek. The four-year indentures of Alan Barker and colleague Philip Musgrave, who joined from Manchester College of Art and Technology last September, should enable them to gain wide experience before specialising.

Alan Barker, who completed the BTEC first diploma in computer-aided design at Brooklands Technical College, Weybridge, before signing his indentures, certainly sees the value in the scheme.

"I love coming to work - working here as an apprentice has given me the confidence to achieve."

StorageTek's apprentices are spending their first two years on rotation through departments of the 450-employee company. They will work in software development; customer response; field-based mobile technological support and the warehouse - run by an ex-army sergeant major.

This wide working knowledge of the firm, which designs, supplies and services large information storage systems for banks and insurance companies, will allow the apprentices a firm foundation to build on when they specialise in the last two years.

The career benefits to the apprentices should be considerable - but Mr McGarvie sees it as a good deal for the business as well: "It's nice to be able to give them a chance to break into the industry, but the less altruistic reason is that at the end of the four years we hope to have a valuable employee."

Getting into computing is not as easy as it once was, according to Mr McGarvie , and the apprenticeship scheme offers a structured entry straight from school or college as an alternative to taking a computing degree at university. "It's increasingly difficult for young people to get into IT because as the technology advances the first rung of the ladder is so much more technically demanding.

"Twenty years ago somebody could start as a punch-card operator and progress from there - but those days are gone."

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