From education to employment

2013: The year for vocational learning

One month into 2013 and already it looks like this year is set to be an important one for the development of vocational education in terms of how it will impact on both learners and public perception.

This momentum – which in reality began with the announcement at the end of 2012 by Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock, on the expansion of apprenticeships to be offered at university degree level – is incredibly encouraging. Mr Hancock’s announcement is something I wholeheartedly support and a direction in which City & Guilds has been heading itself, with the recent introduction and ongoing expansion of our suite of Higher Level Apprenticeships.

Like the Skills Minister, I believe that apprenticeships provide an excellent pathway not just into a job, but for progression to the highest levels of a person’s chosen career. That’s why it is so important that we keep working to expand apprenticeships and vocational learning not just upwards but also outwards, to encompass sectors where access has, to date, been traditionally limited to those who have a degree.

It is therefore a notable step forward that, from next year, apprenticeships at levels six and seven will be officially recognised and offered in sectors more commonly associated with university, like law, accounting and insurance. Not only will this open up entry into these professions – which is extremely important at a time when application figures tell us many young people are being priced out of university – but will, I hope, help to further enhance the status and positive public perception of vocational education.

As we embark on 2013, it’s heartening to see a significant shift in the public consciousness – you only need to look at the engagement of the Government and media with vocational education and training over the past year or so to know that there is better awareness than there has been for a long time about the value it has to offer learners, businesses and, in turn, the wider economy. Nonetheless, some old misconceptions remain, particularly around the long-term progression and kinds of industries apprenticeships can offer access to. In this way I am optimistic that the Government’s announcement will be of benefit in two ways: by expanding the level of training apprenticeships can offer and developing public  understanding so that apprentices and degrees are universally viewed with parity of esteem.

Vocational learning was also given a good start for 2013 with the Government announcing that small and medium sized businesses will receive more support to offer apprenticeships under an extension of the Apprenticeship Grant. It is encouraging to see the Government not only back work-based programmes by the development of higher apprenticeships but also put its money where its mouth is. Businesses must be given support if we are to ensure the on-going availability of high quality apprenticeships that benefit both the employer and apprentice themselves.

As no one can fail to notice, a university degree – whilst the right route for many – no longer guarantees a job for the learner or work-ready candidates for businesses. Apprenticeships offer hands-on training and development at a time when it is most needed and, in due course, will prove just as applicable to those embarking on a legal profession as those working in manufacturing. Add to this an absurd situation in the UK were we have a dire skills shortage and simultaneously high levels of unemployment, particularly among young people, and both the problem and solution are clear: we need to start giving people the skills industries need. In doing so, we can make them an attractive and valuable prospect to employers as opposed to a risky investment, even in today’s job market, which is undoubtedly the toughest it has been for generations.

It is only too clear that vocational education and apprenticeships have a vital role to play in tackling skills shortages and high unemployment levels. Now that perceptions are changing, the development of longer progression routes and increased funding will both help in working towards resolving this problem. We’ve made a promising start this year – one which I hope will continue to make this a truly unique year for vocational learning.

Chris Jones is chief executive and director general of City and Guilds, the awarding body

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