Is it time to rebrand apprenticeships?

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Written by Paul Freeman on 27 February 2020 in Opinion

Let's sort out apprenticeships' image problem, says Paul Freeman.

Reading time: 4 minutes

There remains a stigma around apprenticeships which is pitifully out of date, especially when the scope of available roles and qualifications is more wide-ranging than ever.

Recent research by the City & Guilds Group found that most adults in England think apprenticeships trump university for skills development and value for money – yet the majority (50%) would still choose university rather than do an apprenticeship (30%).

Few people still cling to the belief that a university degree guarantees employment, yet many miss the fact that working through an apprenticeship assures you paid work.

Apprenticeships – with their Middle Ages origins in the workshops and bakeries of town guilds and master craftsmen – come down to us with historical baggage.

While an apprentice no longer expects to spend the last five years of their childhood in unpaid work in exchange for food, clothes, lodging and on-the-job training, there is still an assumption that an apprenticeship does not offer the same opportunities – or carry the same kudos – as an academic degree.

This despite the fact that the average university student finishes their degree £36,000 in debt, usually with little or no pertinent work experience for their chosen/hoped-for career.

According to IBM research released this month, although 65% of graduates had regrets about going to university, a fifth felt that their parents wouldn’t approve if they opted for an apprenticeship over a university degree.

Why, when many entry level roles requiring degrees are poorly paid, menial and precarious, is this still the case? And how come, even with apprenticeships now available up to degree-level, the ‘A’ word is still associated with time spent under a car or a sink?

Apprenticeships, it seems, have an image problem. Perhaps this is a hangover from their 20th century iteration, when an apprenticeship meant ending your traditional education at the first opportunity and entering work – often because you needed to contribute to the household as soon as possible.

Companies might think about taking a leaf out of the football training world by rebranding their apprenticeship programmes as academies

In the heydays of apprenticeships in the 1960s, around 35% of male school leavers aged 15-17 left school for apprenticed employment.

Around the same time (1962), more young people – thanks to universal family allowance and student maintenance grants (and later post-16, in-school Child Benefit) – were able to afford to stay on at school to qualify for, and go to, university.

A degree was seen as a means to achieve social mobility, potentially granting entry into the professions. It has long been a traditional point-of-pride (and one that campaigning politicians are especially keen on), to be “the first one in the family to go to university”.

If you didn’t get the grades to go to university (or polytechnic), technical college was the next best option, with apprenticeships portrayed traditionally as the more prosaic route into a trade and, at best, possible self-employment/sufficiency.

According to the Institute of Directors, by 1990, due to a combination of the end of the job-for-life mentality, the recession in the 1980s, government-funded initiatives like the Youth Training Scheme (originally created to ease youth unemployment) and demographics (as the Baby Boomers aged out of the sector) the number of apprentices had dropped to just 53,000.



Since the 2015 government pledge to create three million new apprenticeships by 2020, two million people have entered apprenticeships in the UK. And they’re not all school leavers – 45% were aged 25 and the gender split is close to 50/50. That’s some way off the government’s target.

Why aren’t we there yet? The complex bureaucracy around actioning/collecting the levy isn’t helping, certainly. Maybe it’s just a matter of nomenclature?

Perhaps if the Apprenticeship Levy had been called an Employer Skills Levy, or Career Development Levy, it would have more positive connotations, inspiring organisations to look at how they can upskill their workforce to meet the ever-growing business challenges?

It’s not a resource problem on the education front. Apprenticeship training is moving with the times. In technology in particular, the work is being done to provide knowledge, skills and experience that will equip trainee employees for the future roles that will be needed for the fourth industrial revolution.

This entails providing not only the skills, expertise and experience business will need but also preparing students/employees for what work will look like in the coming decades.

Flexible, entry-to-degree-level in-work programmes and the changing nature of work will eventually resolve apprenticeship’s bad reputation but in the meantime, companies might think about taking a leaf out of the football training world by rebranding their apprenticeship programmes as academies?

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a university degree. A fully functioning society needs authorities and advocates across the broadest spectrum of human knowledge and endeavour. Pursuing a university education is one of many routes towards a chosen career, it’s just not the only one and let’s be honest, these days, it can be a costly gamble.

As working practices are evolving to meet the needs of the coming decades, in-work training and education will be keeping pace too.

Maybe some of that education needs to be in re-educating the public on the value of bringing through the next generation with the tools they need to thrive and become the mid-21st century town burghers and master craftsmen/trainers of the generation after that. T’was ever thus ...  


About the author

Paul Freeman is MD of Global Knowledge Apprenticeships



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