National Apprenticeship Week: Are apprenticeships the universities of the future?

Rachael Gillett on why degree-level apprenticeships are an attractive alternative to university.

Reading time: 4 minutes

Being 18 years old is a challenge at the best of times with multiple choices to make about a whole range of things but, surely, one of the most difficult decisions must be choosing which career path you’re going to follow.

Traditionally, there have been two main options – head straight into the workplace to earn money, or go to university and gain further qualifications in the hope that a well-paid job would be waiting for you upon graduation.

While for some careers such as law or medicine a degree is still a requirement, for many others, degree-level apprenticeships are an attractive alternative.

The Sutton Trust’s annual survey of children aged 11-16 has shown that the proportion of young people who think it’s important to go to university to do well and get on in life fell steadily between 2013 and 2018.

In 2018, 77% of those surveyed said they were likely to go to university, compared to 86% in 2013. Of those who were likely to go to university, or weren’t sure yet, nearly half were worried about tuition fees and the idea of having to repay student loans for up to 30 years.

And of those that said they are unlikely to go into higher education, 44% cited financial reasons.

The concept of getting paid to study for a qualification, without the possibility of long-term student debts, is increasingly appealing

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the concept of getting paid to study for a qualification, without the possibility of long-term student debts, is increasingly appealing.

Figures released by the Department for Education show that between August 2018 and January 2019, a total of 225,800 apprenticeships were started in England; a 10% increase on the same period a year earlier.

The same figures show that there has been a shift in the level of apprenticeships from lower level, school-leaver training, to higher level degree and postgraduate programmes.

Of the 375,800 apprenticeships started in the 2017-18 academic year, 4,500 were at Level 7 which covers postgraduate level courses, compared with 30 in the 2015-16 academic year. In the same period the number of Level 2 apprenticeships, equivalent to GCSEs, fell from 291,330 to 161,390.

We’re seeing fewer examples of people following what may have been described as a traditional career ladder. Instead, people are opting for ‘patchwork careers’ – applying skills to different areas and reskilling throughout their working life.

People are focusing much more on work that excites and motivates them, and keeps providing new challenges.

Offering opportunities for staff to take this approach is good for them as it keeps them engaged, and it’s great for businesses as it allows them to keep loyal people who have multiple skills and understand the firm from different angles.

The expansion of different routes into business is not a replacement for graduate schemes; far from it. It’s about providing more opportunities to more people at different stages of their lives.  

Apprentices are ambitious, creative and keen to learn. An apprenticeship isn’t an easy option; it requires hard work and dedication, together with energy and enthusiasm to achieve, and these qualities are essential for success.

Top tips for taking on an apprentice

  1. Work with the National Apprenticeship Service, a government agency that co-ordinates apprenticeships in England. This will help you understand exactly what’s involved in an apprenticeship and how any apprenticeship standard might align to one of your roles.
  2. Work with local partners, including schools and colleges, to help bring both the value of apprenticeships and the unique opportunities in your business to both young people and their parents over the longer term.
  3. Consider the best channels to attract the people who will be a good fit for your business.
  4. When recruiting, be sure that the interview and selection process assesses potential rather than just experience, otherwise you could miss out on some excellent candidates.
  5. Make sure you have selected a training provider who will be flexible to work with you to deliver the right programme for your business and your apprentices at the right cost.
  6. Invest time and effort in ensuring you have clear development paths for your apprentices beyond the initial programme. Provide the support to ensure they get a good start and continue to be successful.


About the author

Rachael Gillett is chief people officer at BGL Group


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