Professional apprenticeships – the way to improve social mobility

Young people face an uncertain future due to inequality, Nichola Hay suggests that professional apprenticeship offer real opportunities for the next generation to thrive

At first glance, the latest annual State of the Nation 2023 report from the Social and Mobility Commission (SMC) could make for bleak reading for the UK’s younger generations.

Pointing to stagnating wages and broader geographic inequality across the UK, Alun Francis, chair of the Commission, warned that Britain’s younger generation was at risk of being worse off than their parents, stating that unequal levels of access to high-quality education and training have slowed opportunities for upward social mobility.

The report shows a strong correlation between young people’s highest level of qualification, and the level of education that their parents achieved. For example, people whose parents had studied at university were found to be far more likely to get a degree – 64% against 18% – than those whose parents did not.

Furthermore, adults with lower-working class parents are about three times as likely – 30% against 11% – to find themselves in a working-class occupation, compared with adults with higher professional parents.

Research shows that women are consistently judged as having less leadership potential than their male counterparts, making them 14% less likely to apply for more senior roles and opportunities

The SMC’s report is thoroughly well-researched; however, there is one important area within education that it fails consider – apprenticeships.  

For young people across the UK, moving up the social ladder continues to be an onerous hurdle amidst increasing social mobility stagnation.

Many people view the best way to achieve social mobility is through upward occupational mobility, wherein an employee moves from a low-wage occupation to one with a higher wage. Professional apprenticeships provide a much-needed starting point to do this, which is accessible for everyone.

Employers and employees are becoming increasingly drawn to professional apprenticeships, due to the vast opportunities they provide for younger people from all socio-economic backgrounds who are wanting to upskill themselves and put the measures in place to achieve upward occupational mobility.

Earn while you learn

Younger people from lower socio-economic backgrounds may automatically assume that they cannot afford the financial burden that is so often associated with pursuing further education, or new skill acquisition more broadly.

However, this is not the case when it comes to professional apprenticeships, which are built around the principle of on-the-job learning. This is exactly what you would expect – it allows individuals to earn a salary while they learn valuable new skills that open new career opportunities.

The personalised nature of on-the-job learning ensures that participants acquire skills which are directly relevant to their chosen career path, enhancing their employability and potential for career development and progression.

Critically, tailored on-the-job learning dispels the idea that you must take time out from your career to learn tangible skills. Now, previously time-poor individuals can focus on their wider career development as an integrated part of their everyday professional life. 

Breaking down socio-economic barriers

Often, younger people in the UK tend to feel that certain job opportunities in the modern economy are closed off to them, due to factors such as gender, ethnicity and social class. Consequently, this results in them ruling out the possibility of ever applying in the first place.

For instance, research shows that women are consistently judged as having less leadership potential than their male counterparts, making them 14% less likely to apply for more senior roles and opportunities.

This attitude stems from social or economic circumstances pre-determining the jobs people feel they are eligible to apply for, reiterating findings from the SMC report which stated that adults with working-class parents are three times more likely to hold a working-class position themselves.   

Professional apprenticeships are an effective solution to overcoming these barriers, as they provide a viable entry route for individuals from more diverse backgrounds; from parents looking to re-enter the workforce, to the long-term economically inactive, professional apprenticeships give people the chance to gain access to high quality training regardless of their educational history.

What’s in it for employers?

Historically, the wider business community has, in some instances, failed to grasp the full potential of apprenticeship programmes, associating them purely with school and college leavers.

However, professional apprenticeships offer on-the-job development to professionals at all levels of a business, for workers of all ages, which helps fill critical skills gaps throughout the entire business.

This is particularly relevant for SME’s, who may feel they do not have the capacity for an entire L&D department. In this case, finding the right training provider to help design the most effective apprenticeship programmes is essential to delivering wider business goals.

Investing in professional apprenticeships is a vital first step when it comes to tangible business growth, as it not only helps to improve social mobility, but supports wider staff retention.

By offering staff the opportunity to upskill, retrain for promotion, or transfer to other areas of the business, a business demonstrates a clear commitment to their personal and professional development, which results in an altogether happier and more satisfied workforce.

Furthermore, professional apprenticeships are a great way to futureproof a business. Staying relevant and competitive in an ever-changing world of industry standards is vital for sustained business expansion.

Through continued opportunities to upskill themselves, employees can build their industry knowledge and discover new learning strategies, sharing their findings with the wider workforce and ultimately being more equipped to adapt to any future changes the business may face.

Final thoughts

While much work still must be done to solve the UK’s social mobility crisis in the long-term, professional apprenticeships are a vital first step in tackling this ongoing issue.

The potential gains from apprenticeships are vast – they can help encourage young people across the UK to unlock their true potential, break free from the outdated notion that their socio-economic background defines them, and climb the ladder of opportunity to a better future.

Nichola Hay MBE, Director of Apprenticeship Strategy & Policy at BPP

Nichola Hay

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