From education to employment

The power of apprenticeships to change lives and economies

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO, City & Guilds

Kirstie Donnelly MBE, Chief Executive, City & Guilds reflects on the positive value of apprenticeships to learners and the economy. She focuses on how apprenticeships can address skills gaps, and change lives and offers insight on challenges in increasing apprenticeship uptake as well as changing public perception of the value of an apprenticeship and ensuring that the apprenticeships work for employers.

National Apprenticeship Week 2024 Overview

As we approach the start of National Apprenticeship Week 2024, I am struck by just how many lives are changed, following the chance to take on an apprenticeship. By March this year, City & Guilds will enable 70,000 apprenticeship completions – that’s an impressive milestone as we go into this year’s National Apprenticeship Week.

Real Stories of Transformation

Behind these numbers, there are of course real lives and real opportunities unfolding.  Take Melissa who studied for an apprenticeship in Digital Technology Solutions now working for a major corporation in their CSR department.  Or Jarishan, a former Microsoft Apprentice, is currently a data consultant, he is passionate about apprenticeships and an ambassador for training and skills that can be accessed through vocational and technical routes. Or Tanaka who has been passionate about apprenticeships since his sixth-form education when he knew that an apprenticeship was the best option for him. He has since undertaken apprenticeships for 7 years consecutively & is currently a project manager at Balfour Beatty.

These young people are embracing opportunity, learning and earning thanks to apprenticeships! And we at City & Guilds gain so much from them. Melissa, Jarishan and Tanaka are three members of our Young Learner Advisory Team who help us to make sure we are doing things right. Both as a leader in apprenticeship certification and our apprenticeship delivery, as well as a broker to industry taking apprentices on!

There is a caveat to this progress, however, which is that the current national trend, published by ONS, shows a decline in the number of young, Level 2 apprentices, and a simultaneous, corresponding increase in apprenticeships being completed by older age groups in the workforce. Both are important talent pools we need to harness if we are to meet our ambitions for a growing economy and address the skills gap. To tackle this, we must continue to push for more industry-relevant approaches to apprenticeships and enable more flex in the system for greater success.

Industry-Relevant Approaches and Success Stories

Millie Norman, a City & Guilds nuclear engineering apprentice, who trained with Gen2 at Sellafield in Cumbria is an example of how apprenticeships are meeting industry needs. Millie completed her A Levels before leaving school and chose to apply for an apprenticeship, instead of going to university, to get real-world experience in her chosen field of work. She says,

“I knew throughout school that I was a visual learner and would benefit more from being in an environment where I could watch different jobs taking place in real life, rather than learning it from a textbook.”

When asked, what, for her, is the best thing about being an apprentice, Millie says:

“It’s the wide, diverse range of people you meet within the industry. Being introduced to different job roles and different people gave me a real understanding of what working life in the nuclear industry is really like – all working together to reach a common goal. Being surrounded by many people from different engineering backgrounds gave me a wider support system to complete my apprenticeship. This is because I would always be certain that any query I had about my apprenticeship or the industry would be answered, as I had access to many different contacts who were always willing to help.”

Mission of City & Guilds

Ensuring that apprentices like Millie Norman, have the skills and confidence they need to progress to the next stage of training, into sustained employment, or to take the next step in their career, is central to our mission at City & Guilds. We want more opportunities like this to change lives and industries at the same time. Put simply, apprenticeships are both a social change and a growth engine.

On the whole, apprenticeships have been – and continue to be – a success story, but more must be done to promote awareness and access to these programmes.  A recent survey carried out by Amazing Apprenticeships, in December 2023, revealed that growing apprenticeship awareness and positivity are hindered by a confidence gap among education practitioners and parents/carers of apprentices. When compounded with a growing need for greater information, advice and guidance services that can point people in the right direction we are looking out to a horizon of missed opportunity if we are not careful.

The survey polled 3,225 parents/carers who responded from over 50 schools, with 70% of respondents saying they would recommend an apprenticeship to their child, up 6% from 2022. However, only one in ten were confident in supporting their child to search and apply for an apprenticeship, compared to four in ten for UCAS applications. City & Guilds supported the move by UCAS to enhance a parity of esteem between university education and the pursuit of an apprenticeship late last year.  It is great to now see apprenticeships as a viable and visible route to success on the UCAS portal.

Perception can be everything! And whilst we work with many forward-thinking employers that value apprenticeships and training more broadly, we also know that some still perceive a lower value in apprentices than investment in a graduate. Yet done well, apprenticeships can provide the route needed to address industry skills gaps and offer a fulfilling experience, as we see in the examples above. This is a point supported by our ‘Levying up’ report (Feb 2023), produced with the 5% Club.  It is also the feedback we hear from some of the employers in our network of employers receiving the coveted Princess Royal Training Award.

Advocacy and Future Initiatives

Another recommendation in our Levying up report is to cancel plans to reduce level 2 apprenticeships because we know this is an important step in making that first entry point into a career and particularly valued by those from less advantaged backgrounds, to upskill. As many of these people are not ready for level 3 apprenticeships and not all companies offer level 3 roles as their entry point, if level 2 apprenticeships were to be reduced, opportunities for these groups would be further restricted. More so we would compound the current skill gap shortage for some industries that rely on these skills at this level.

One thing is clear, through proactive planning and support from the system and organisations such as City & Guilds, providers and employers can give their apprentices a higher chance of success.  To support providers in their efforts, City & Guilds recently set up an apprenticeship support hub on our website.

During National Apprenticeship Week, it is the ideal time to celebrate all that’s positive about our apprenticeship journey so far as a nation and all that’s been achieved. At City & Guilds, we have lots of inspiring stories of success made possible by an apprenticeship. This year we look forward to creating even more.  

This week we are aiming to spread the word about the good work City & Guilds is accomplishing on apprenticeships, at our annual National Apprenticeship Week Grand Final being held at our Gen2 site in Cumbria, and the tenth Annual Apprenticeships conference, later this month (26-27 February), in Birmingham.

By Kirstie Donnelly MBE, Chief Executive, City & Guilds

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