From education to employment

Prioritising access: building apprenticeships for the future

Year on year, the number of people attending university continues to rise. This year, a total of 425,830 students will enter further education, including 180,000 18-year-olds, a 20% increase from 2019. Underpinning this trend is a slow-moving societal change in the way many view third-level education. Rishi Sunak’s vow to crack down on degrees that don’t increase earning potential is just one example of this changing public opinion. But, of course, university isn’t the only indicator of earning potential, and alternative career paths are on the rise, with apprenticeships increasing by 9.4% this year alone.

As we prepare to welcome a new prime minister, there is a significant opportunity to rethink how we approach apprenticeships to increase quality, improve recruitment and retention, and increase the potential career routes of an ambitious new generation. A new government must understand the importance of apprenticeships to our economy, especially in sectors such as tech that repeatedly struggle to fill vacancies through traditional routes.

How do apprenticeships affect the bottom line?

Not only do apprenticeship schemes help to fill the skills gap many organisations face, but they also promote diversity within the workplace, giving opportunities to those from different educational and socio-economic backgrounds. While this is, of course, a great cause morally, it is also one that pays. Increased diversity in the workplace leads to expanded perspectives and creativity, faster problem solving, and even increased profits; furthermore, diverse workplaces have repeatedly shown greater retention rates of staff.

The big issue: retention

Earlier this year, Alex Burghart MP laid out an ambitious vision to improve the quality of apprenticeships, aiming for a 67% achievement rate by 2025. With only 53 per cent of apprentices staying on their programme until their end-point assessment in 2020/21, there is a considerable amount to be done. But ultimately, quality needs to improve in order to inspire apprentices to stay.

Such an increase in standards requires decisive action on a governmental level. Yet, there are many policies that organisations can implement to introduce or significantly improve a successful, reliable apprentice stream. They rely on three key factors: flexibility, variety and honesty.


Apprenticeships need to be flexible in several ways to prevent limitations on the talent pool. While apprentices are often young workers, people of all ages constantly seek opportunities to improve their careers. In order to develop a diverse team that represents different talents, skills and backgrounds, opportunities should not be limited solely to university graduates or school leavers. Try casting the net wider: employees within the company who are looking to level up their career, particularly in areas where job functions are likely to be automated in the coming decade.

Flexibility does not only apply to recruitment but should be applied to how organisations approach and train each apprentice. Tech organisations need a variety of vital roles and skill sets. Therefore the organisation must adapt their training around the desires and needs of the individual worker. If an apprentice is inclined towards a specific skill set or role, it is up to mentors to point them in a direction that aligns with their values and interests. On the other hand, if companies are rigid in their treatment of recruits, they will simply move to a role that better serves their career aspirations and interests.

Every employee is different and expects different things from their employer, and while special treatment can’t be given to each employee, if the ultimate goal is to retain apprentices, organisations should work to address needs to the best of their ability.


Due to the often diverse nature of the apprenticeship pool, both in age and background, it can be challenging to determine what inspires each candidate and what they find rewarding about their work. A varied apprenticeship allows naturally curious minds to view different roles, learn from various mentors, and come into contact with multiple colleagues. The result is that apprentices don’t get bored and have a greater opportunity to find what makes them tick.

Once a candidate has seen enough areas of the business, efforts should be made to discuss what areas are most exciting and rewarding for each candidate. They should then be encouraged to pursue those interests inside the organisation. Because once again, if businesses simply tell candidates what job they will be doing without considering their needs and desires, the result will be an abrupt departure.

Coming into contact with different business colleagues also increases the opportunity for inspiration. In many cases, the opportunity to learn and receive validation from seniors we respect is a fantastic and effective way to feel valued in a role. Furthermore, the effect works both ways, as the opportunity to teach new members can lead to a renewed sense of pride for mentors, and the steady supply of new minds keeps the team’s creativity fresh and everyone on their toes.

Finally, variety applies to the experiences one has at work. Many parts of a job feed into an employee’s sense of belonging or enjoyment. Whether it is the nature of the work, the training they receive, the connections made with fellow employees, the social aspect of a job, or the ability to make a difference. Many organisations have various activities and perks that are intended to boost morale and provide a sense of belonging to the company. While these experiences are often appreciated, employees rarely get a choice in them.

Many businesses fail to understand the enormous creativity and desire for belonging that many apprentices bring to the workplace. Apprentices should be encouraged to have input on shaping the programme; if apprentices are encouraged to participate in their own satisfaction, they will be much more likely to bring forward imaginative ideas to improve development and increase engagement. Workers who participate and have a say in their own experiences and training will also inevitably be more content and dedicated to their role.


Honesty is a crucial aspect of any relationship, and a tone of genuine openness must be struck from the beginning of an apprenticeship scheme to be successful. Apprentices should be encouraged to be honest about what they want from a job, what training they wish to receive and what roles interest them. Furthermore, the onus is on organisations to be honest about what they expect from apprentices, what their training programme will look like and what opportunities are available.

Frequent check-ins should be arranged to discuss happiness, motivation, and if either party can make improvements. Updates also provide an opportunity to discuss how progress is being made and what can be done to advance learning.

Honesty, however, has to come from the top down from the very outset. Workers will immediately sense if their employer wants them not to ask for something or withhold criticism, and they won’t forget it. Apprentices should always be encouraged to be open about how they feel in the role, how they believe they can advance their training and what would make them happier in their position. Ultimately, improved happiness leads to greater likelihood of retention, and the best way to gauge satisfaction is to ask. 

Conversations like these reassure everyone and lead to less unwelcome surprises. Furthermore, the positive environment created as a result will increase referability, leading to more and more candidates wanting to be a part of a positive and rewarding workplace.

Looking forward

Apprenticeships are an excellent way to promote a diverse workforce while addressing skill shortages and improving outcomes. As they become increasingly popular, the new government needs to recognise their significant value and increase access to such schemes. They should bolster schemes such as the apprenticeship levy scheme and utilise them to create the next generation of technical talent that this country desperately needs.

However, they can’t be alone, and organisations must step up to do their part. The future of apprenticeships will be built on mutually beneficial relationships where both the apprentice and the employer gain from each other. It isn’t rocket science. Workers want an opportunity to be helpful, to learn and increase their earning potential, and to produce good work that they deem important and interesting. Similarly, employers want a stream of apprentices that fills gaps in their workforce, improves outcomes and adds value to the company. These objectives are achievable through future apprenticeships, as long as they are built on honesty, flexibility and variety.

By Jill Gates, Vice President Culture and People, Europe and Asia, at Ensono

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