Apprenticeships: A game changer for the common good?

Euan Blair, Co-Founder and CEO at WhiteHat, meets Conor Gilligan.

Let’s start with a little more about WhiteHat. How did it all come about?

At a macro level, there have been major push factors driving what we think is the future of how you access the best jobs. There is a global skills shortage, affecting every developed economy, and universities are not preparing students for the changing nature of the labour market or equipping them with relevant skills.

At the same time, the cost of university has been rising dramatically despite its weakening value proposition, so it’s becoming less appealing to students. Finally, nearly every major organisation is trying to figure out how to introduce more diversity into their workforces.

There has been a long ingrained assumption that university is essential as a route into a great career and yet given these macro pressures it’s clear this is an imperfect system. 

Apprenticeships provide a route in for diverse talent that might not otherwise have the means of accessing great careers.

Apprenticeships are the ideal mechanism for solving the problems I outlined; they provide a route in for diverse talent that might not otherwise have the means of accessing great careers. They also simultaneously provide applied learning experiences that mean people can be taught how to do things, as well as the underlying theory, in a way that is directly beneficial to employers.

They say in business, you should do something you’re passionate about, what drives you?

In essence it’s ensuring that the best jobs of the next decade don’t just go to the same group of people the best jobs of the last decade went to.

We’re experiencing some of the negative consequences at the moment in the UK of people not feeling that opportunities are spread evenly enough throughout society, and Brexit is a powerful expression of this feeling. Addressing this challenge through the work we’re doing is what drives me.

In your opinion, how can businesses leverage the apprenticeship model?

Businesses have a brilliant opportunity given the introduction of the levy to both address the way they introduce talent into their business and how they provide opportunities for development to their current employees.

On the entry level talent side, businesses can benefit from reaching great school leaver talent that they might never otherwise be connected to if they’ve focused most of their recruitment efforts on graduates.

The apprentices we place are some of the most industrious, entrepreneurial, and highly motivated young people around, and they’re both proud and aware that at the moment they’re taking the path less travelled, and they have very high levels of resilience as a result.


They can also inject crucial diversity of thought and background into their organisations; half of the apprentices we place have claimed free school meals and 65% are non-white British.

In terms of opportunities for existing employees, businesses can prove to their teams that they are investing in them by providing them with access to robust and well constructed training programmes that are much more impactful than short-term training courses.

They can also ensure they don’t lose people unnecessarily as their businesses change and become more tech and digitally focused. For example, people in marketing and operations functions need to become highly adept data analysts as the nature of their job is changing. This prevents employee churn and ensures businesses maintain high skill levels in growth areas.

We are also seeing organisations create robust training programmes, often leveraging learning technologies to support delivery, capture data and predict future state of their apprentices. There have been recent reforms in the apprenticeship programme, what changes would you like to see?

I have been vocal about wanting to see the opportunity for employers to transfer more of their levy, and luckily that change is happening, with the government moving the amount that can be transferred from 10% to 25%. We would also like to see the system simplified, so that you don’t have 100s of apprenticeship standards but instead a much smaller number that can be broadly applied.

For example, an overarching digital and tech apprenticeship could include flexible modules for software engineers, data analysts, UX/UI designers, front-end web specialists, with employers able to choose the one that suits their need best.

I’d also like to see the apprenticeship levels system (levels 2 to 7), which makes sense in an academic context but rarely in a workplace context, replaced with a simple ‘entry’, ‘intermediate’, and ‘advanced’ apprenticeship system in each of the pathways developed.

Finally, I’d like to see changes to the way schools are measured so that employment and apprenticeship destinations are given more prominence. A large focus of our work is on advocating for apprenticeships more broadly and raising awareness of the opportunities that exist so young people, parents, and teachers are aware of them.


About the author

Conor Gilligan is Vice President of Global Services at Webanywhere.


Want to find out more about apprenticeship options? is a free online tool for people to find out more about apprenticeships and other options for school leavers.


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