Firebrand Instructor Pushes IT Apprentice Training in the UK to the Next Level

by Michelle Peterson | May 07, 2014
firebrand_fildesclass Firebrand IT instructor Gary Fildes, front right, gives the thumbs up to his class of 10 UK apprentice students, celebrating their 100 percent pass rate for CompTIA Security+

IT instructor Gary Fildes — a grown-up class clown who takes his role in information technology very seriously — plays a lot of roles in the classroom: He’s at once a teacher, a mentor and a cheerleader. He said, “When some kids leave high school, their self-esteem may be lacking due to poor grades, poor career prospects and lack of opportunity. So I’m trying to beef them up saying, ‘You can do this,’ but in a bit more of a ‘YOU CAN DO THIS!’ kind of voice.” A teacher for many years, Fildes now works for Firebrand Training, a global learning center that promises fast, quality results. There, he’s been taking UK apprentice students from IT zeroes to IT heroes.

Firebrand Training, headquartered in the UK, has training centers across Europe and the Middle East. Students stay on campus, where board and meals are free, to immerse fully into the curriculum and keep pace with Firebrand’s hallmark of accelerated learning. “It’s 12-hour days of very intensive training, and every course ends with an exam,” said James Lapwood, Firebrand’s communications manager. “It’s very different from the traditional classroom.” Firebrand, currently running a Free Training for Life drawing, also offers a certification guarantee: If you don’t pass the first exam, you can return to train with Firebrand for free for the next year until you do.

An Accelerated Apprenticeship  

For the last two and a half years, Firebrand has run an apprentice training program in line with the UK’s government-funded apprenticeships. An alternative to expensive university education, apprenticeships give students a year of on-the-job experience, plus training and certifications. Students also receive at least the apprentice minimum wage for their work. “Ultimately what it means is that students from 16 to 24 have the opportunity to complete a year’s worth of training on the job,” Lapwood said. “They’re getting experience in the real world and gaining training and certifications at the same time.”

Many apprenticeships require students to be on the job four days a week and spend the fifth in training, but Firebrand — proud to be an outlier — does things a little differently. Students in Firebrand’s IT apprenticeship program, which features many CompTIA certifications, spend a full week on campus to train, and 10 weeks back home, working and studying for the next go-round. The first week of on-campus training features CompTIA Strata, followed by Microsoft Windows 7 and then networks, security and servers. Many of these students, according to Fildes, come into the program pretty new to technology. “When they come in, they hardly know the difference between a stick of RAM and a hard disk,” Fildes said.

These short training windows cover CompTIA Strata, A+ and Network+, and while Firebrand moves fast, Fildes wants to move faster.

The First Experiment

Fildes — a bit of a firebrand himself — has tried a few times to over-teach, just to move things along faster. He gave a particularly sharp student in a class of six the option to move Network+ up and add a Security+ certification to the mix. Once the other students caught wind, they all wanted to try.

Hoping four of the six would pass the Network+ exam, Fildes was surprised when they all did. “I was shocked. But then I thought, ‘If you can pass Network+, you have an 80 percent chance of passing Security+.’”

If you’ve never taken this exam, don’t think it’s easy, he said. While A+ is “a bit of a tough cookie,” according to Fildes, but it’s nothing compared to Security+. “When I’ve previously taught with the U.S. military, I’ve seen people come out of the testing gaunt-faced and drained, as it’s a stressful one-and-a-half hours in testing. These are not easy certifications.”

When the students came back for their fourth week on campus, they put the pedal to the metal — in the classroom all day, revising until midnight and then back in the classroom for more review until the exam at 11:00 a.m. “We gave it a go and, surprisingly, all six passed the Security+ exam, too,” Fildes said.

A Second Experiment

As every good scientist knows, to confirm an experiment you’ve got to try it again. Fildes’ next sample was a group of 10 apprentice students, a group he describes with much affection. “All of them have got these different, crazy, want-to-win personalities,” he said. “I think we can educate as much as you want, but you’ve got to have the attitude to make it work.”

Again, and purely as an option, Fildes opened it up to the class: Do you want to accelerate this learning and add Security+? Of course they did. After a lot of long nights, early mornings and intense classroom time — all 10 students sat for the exam. “They came in and did the Network+ again and nine out of 10 passed,” Fildes said. The student who “fluffed it by one mark” was given a second voucher and passed later that day.

Now the big test: CompTIA Security+. “We gave them the warning: ‘Guys, this is tough, but you’ll pass if you listen,’” Fildes said before sending them back home for 10 weeks of review and study time. “Obviously, no one listened. So we had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for late nights and a lot of revision, and they did another at 11: 00, 11:30 on Thursday night before the exam. They were in the room at seven in the morning and took the exam at 11:30 Friday.”

This time, they surpassed the Network+ results by attaining a 100 percent pass rate. “They all came out with some amazing scores, with just three or four questions wrong. It was just insane,” Fildes said.

Despite the long hours for both Fildes and the students, the motivational teacher is pumped for the results. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” he said, with his signature laugh. The students love the format, he said, and don’t mind putting in the extra effort because once they do they leave with a rack of information and improved career prospects.

“The kids work hard because they know what certification will mean in the future,” Fildes said. “People I’ve previously taught now work as far away as Dell in Australia and realize that an A+ or Security+ or Network+ equals a sustainable career in the industry.”

Michelle Peterson is CompTIA’s communications specialist. 

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