Imagine if you were playing ‘word associations’ with friends and work colleagues and the round started with “apprenticeships”. On the one hand, you might hear people saying ‘manual, dull work, low- level, low-wages, low-skilled, dead-end, basic office administration or even slave-labour! But on the other hand, you might also hear more positive descriptions; ‘earning whilst learning’; a better and more useful alternative to A’ Levels and degrees; the ‘best of both worlds’ in terms of combining student life and studying. In fact – and as we will see from the case studies in a later article – the right apprenticeships offer genuine career development opportunities across a broad range of disciplines and sectors and could not be further from the perception of tortuously unfulfilling work that has so often been associated with them.
Over the last fifty years, successive UK governments and employers have learnt the hard way that disadvantaged youth and disaffected employees with nothing to aim for or aspire to, will very often quickly become disillusioned, disenchanted and eventually disenfranchised and disconnected. This has costly implications for both industry and the country as a whole. Small steps are being made towards the Government’s target figure of 3 million in apprenticeships by 2020, despite low unemployment.
However, apprenticeships in their current form are not without their critics. Tom Richmond, Head of the think-tank EDSK, believes the levy scheme has become “meaningless concept” with funds being misused. Quoted in the Daily Telegraph on 4th January 2020, latest data reveals “£550 million spent on management training courses”, “£235 million used to teach people in low-skilled jobs” and how “46 per cent of staff have been with their firms for at least 6 months before starting their apprenticeships”. TES also published a report on 6th January 2020 which hit out at businesses using apprenticeship levy funds to train already-qualified existing employees.
However, many employers (as their training providers will doubtless testify) have produced high-quality, rigorous and challenging apprenticeships aimed at staff of all ages and mostly, the 17-25 year old population. These apprenticeships are useful not only in terms of helping an individual make a smooth transition from school, or college, into the workplace, but also in potentially enabling that person to attain a degree-level work-based qualification. This is likely not only to be more appealing to a prospective employer than a generic degree but also, when combined with practical experience in the workplace, helpful in getting the person up to speed more quickly with what’s required of them as a fully productive member of the team. A rise in apprenticeships can only be a good thing – fully deserving of all stakeholders’ backing and support because, all too often, many people leave school or university with just a generic qualification and a hopeful notion that their dreams of success and fulfilment – i.e. Plan A – will fall into place with just a bit of luck and application.
Hopes and dreams rarely pan out. For example, children at football academies are more likely to get hit by a meteorite than succeed as professionals. Less than half of 1% of footballing hopefuls make it, or make a living from the game. Only 0.012% (180 of the 1.5 million players) will ever make it as a Premier League pro despite their commitment, talent and potential. All those encouraged from an early age to follow their dreams should also be advised to have a solid back-up plan – i.e. Plan B!
It’s the same now with further / higher education and the decision of whether or not to go to university, versus either getting a vocational training or going straight into a job and working one’s way up. With the student debts ever-increasing, the decision not to go to university will be an absolute ‘no-brainer’ for some.
One source estimates average student debts of < £50,000 and although some of it may be “capped” (according to The Week, around 80% of student debt is written-off), students still face the daunting prospect of what to do next with their degree whilst figuring out how to pay off what’s owed and getting a solid footing on the first rung of the career ladder.
This is where apprenticeships really come into their own and may have the edge over conventional full-time tertiary education. Even with part-time jobs, a university degree costs tens of thousands of pounds, with no guarantee of future career success, despite some evidence that it will eventually boost the individual’s earning potential. An apprenticeship enables a person to earn as they learn and in fact prepares them far better, in some ways, for many of life’s curve-balls and stresses. Once enrolled, an apprentice quickly finds out how to juggle the priorities of working, studying and socialising with the demands of home-life and possibly other activities, such as being a carer. Therefore, parents, schools and colleges must ensure that apprenticeships are being promoted alongside more traditional academic routes.
Apprenticeships may never be a substitute for the “bubble” of student-life on campus, but they are shaking off a reputation of low-paid drudgery. And there are more higher-level apprenticeships coming on stream. But entrants beware and be ready. Whilst apprentices can be at any age and potentially available to anyone looking to return to work after a long leave of absence (e.g. returning mums, or career-breakists), competition for the best apprenticeships is as fierce as it is for the top university places.