What is the best route to success: apprenticeships or university?

Simon Moffatt weighs up the pros and cons of apprenticeships and university degrees. 

Over the last couple of decades going to university or college before entering the workplace became the norm for a significant number of school leavers. 
A decline in apprenticeships coincided with this shift towards further education, even among those seeking a more vocational career path. The pendulum is now beginning to swing back with Government policy driving industry-wide adoption of modern day apprenticeships across both traditional and non-traditional sectors.
If policy is the ‘nudge’ how are such opportunities viewed by potential participants and in particular by school leavers and their parents? To find out, earlier this year, we asked both these groups about their attitudes towards 
apprenticeships and while some concerns were voiced, we found that traditional attitudes are certainly changing.
Perhaps one of the standout findings from our research is that over half of parents whose children sat high school level exams this year, disagree that a university education beats an apprenticeship for achieving faster career success. While a similar percentage of parents disagree that apprenticeships are best suited to those considered to be non-academic.
There could be many factors driving these statistics, not least the rising cost of university education and the Government’s increased focus on creating more apprenticeship opportunities across a wide range of business sectors.  
Pay concerns
Despite the growing number of opportunities, parents remain concerned about wage rates. More than two thirds of parents say that they think apprenticeship roles are poorly paid, while 43 per cent believe that apprenticeship opportunities are often in lower-skilled and lower-paid industries.
Neither of these opinions is necessarily the case in reality. Wages for apprentices start at £3.30 an hour for under 19s or those in the first year of an apprenticeship, and rise in line with age according to the latest data from the Government. But importantly there is evidence to suggest that over 90 per cent of employers are willing to pay more than the typical apprenticeship wage, provided they’re matched with the right candidate. 
In terms of the diversity of opportunities on offer these are certainly no longer limited to the more ‘traditional’ industries. 
Apprenticeships  are now available in 1,500 different job roles across more than 170 industries, ranging from advertising to youth work and from environmental engineering to legal work.
Students’ views
While the views of parents are of course an important influence on the career choices of young people, the attitudes of school leavers themselves are crucial in helping employers understand the views of potential apprenticeship candidates. 
Prudential’s research found that students similarly share their parents’ concerns around apprenticeship pay and also have concerns surrounding the level of formal qualifications available through apprenticeships.
The findings also raise concerns over the quality and quantity of information about apprenticeships reaching school leavers, as one in 10 incorrectly believe that recognised qualifications are not available through apprenticeship programmes. 
Information gap
Communication remains a significant challenge for employers running apprenticeship programmes. More than a quarter (29 per cent) of 16-18-year-olds in the UK say the information about apprenticeships in their school or college is ‘poor’, ‘very poor’ or ‘non-existent’ compared with just six per cent who say the same about information regarding university. 
Among those who had decided against an apprenticeship, over a third (36 per cent) selected other options due to the perceived level of qualification available, despite some apprenticeship programmes offering qualifications equivalent to a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. 
A slightly lower number (34 per cent) felt that going to university would make them more employable than completing an apprenticeship and 14 per cent said it was because their parents didn’t see an apprenticeship as a viable option. 
A further 15 per cent decided against an apprenticeship because their school or college did not position it as an option and eight per cent felt apprenticeships were for students that could not get into university. 
Similarly to their parents, many young people believe apprenticeship options are limited with 29 per cent of those who decided against this option put off because they thought programmes were limited to specific industry sectors. For example, almost half did not know that apprenticeships were on offer in the financial services and insurance industries. 
Our research also showed that more than half of school leavers (60 per cent) said they thought a university degree would be preferred by employers while a third thought the two options would be held in equal esteem. Just seven per cent thought that apprenticeships would be preferred to a university degree by employers.
Prudential’s apprenticeship experience
Since its launch in 2013, Prudential has recruited over 175 young people into its apprenticeship programme, which is based on a 12-month contract and pays the National Living Wage. The programme, which offers placements in a wide range of roles in the company, aims to arm young people with the qualifications, knowledge and life skills needed to embark on a successful career in whichever field they choose. Over the last two years around two-thirds of Prudential’s apprentices have been retained by the company in ongoing roles.
Encouraging more young people to consider apprenticeships
As apprenticeship programmes become more widely available across different industries and sectors, it appears that an increasing number of parents and young people are recognising the value of these programmes but there is still some way to go before we reach a truly level playing field with other routes into employment. 
Our research suggests more needs to be done to raise awareness of opportunities presented by apprenticeships and bring perceptions in line with the reality to ensure that parents and school leavers fully understand the benefits, particularly in terms of pay and qualifications. 
The good news is that much work is already underway to promote the value of apprenticeships, with the Government’s commitment to three million new starts by 2020 and new apprenticeship standards being developed by employer “trailblazers.” Initiatives such as National Apprenticeship Week, held each year in March, also play a pivotal part in raising the profile of the opportunities available to those seeking a viable alternative to higher education. 
For companies who are developing and delivering apprenticeship programmes, the quality of the training provided and the overall experience of the young people who complete them will go a long way to helping to demonstrate the true value of modern day apprenticeships. 
By working together, government, industry, schools and parents can all help to ensure that young people have access to relevant and up-to-date information about all of the routes into employment, including apprenticeships to help them access the most appropriate training to succeed in their chosen career. 
About the author
Simon Moffatt is the human resources director at Prudential in the UK.


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