From education to employment

The role of apprenticeships in tackling UK’s social mobility challenges

Nichola Hay

In this article, Nichola Hay discusses the latest report from the Social Mobility Commission and highlights the role of professional apprenticeships in tackling the UK’s growing social mobility crisis

This month, the UK’s Social Mobility Commission released its annual State of the Nation 2023 report on social mobility, with stark warnings from its chair, Alun Francis, that the nation’s younger generation is now in danger of being worse off than its predecessors.

The report found that lower working-class parents are about three times as likely to find themselves in working-class occupations themselves and that people’s highest level of qualification is strongly related to the level of education that their parents achieved. For instance, people who have parents with a degree are far more likely — 64% against 18% — to get a degree than those whose parents don’t have a degree.

Interestingly, 44 per cent of people defined ‘having a better life than your parents’ as meaning have a better education.

Despite the extensive scope of the Commission’s research and its focus on access to education, it is noteworthy that the report fails to consider the progression made by people into apprenticeships — despite accepting in the report that looking into apprenticeships would help improve the accuracy of their future findings.

The fact is that apprenticeships are a key pathway for helping people of all socio-economic backgrounds into the labour market and, most critically, opening up new opportunities for people already in employment to upskill themselves and achieve rapid upward occupational mobility.

As the UK enters a potential period of social mobility stagnation, professional apprenticeships have increasingly emerged as a powerful antidote, which employees and employers are increasingly drawn towards for several reasons which cannot be overlooked.

Levelling the playing field

Professional apprenticeships are an incredibly effective mechanism to help people overcome the traditional barriers to entry that guard many jobs in the modern economy. In many instances, they provide a viable route for individuals from diverse backgrounds, regardless of their educational history, to gain access to high-quality training.

This allows them to forge career advancement opportunities that may never have existed before and ensures that talent, hard work, and potential are the primary determinants of success rather than social or economic circumstances.

Whether it’s parents looking to re-enter the workforce, the long-term economically inactive or recent school/college leavers, an apprenticeship programme can create an opportunity for those candidates who may never have applied for a role due to their lack of direct experience or a specific university degree.

Greater flexibility, higher value

As professional apprenticeships are built around the principle of on-the-job learning, they allow individuals to earn while they learn. This significantly reduces the financial burden often associated with pursuing further education or skill acquisition more broadly.

Moreover, the tailored nature of apprenticeships ensures that – unlike many other educational pursuits – participants acquire skills and knowledge directly relevant to their chosen career path, enhancing their employability and potential for career progression.

In this way, apprenticeships provide a fantastic value for investment — a factor which will be critical to those with less time and resources to dedicate to their professional development.

Times are changing

On top of the warnings from the Social Mobility Commission, it is important to reflect on the fact that we are in a period of rapid change for the UK labour market and the nature of work itself. Driven by automation and technological advancement, many sectors and professions are likely to experience significant upheaval over the next decade.

If we fail as a nation to upskill and reskill our workforce, it is likely that we will see the social mobility crisis worsen at an even greater pace. Professional apprenticeships offer a lifeline to individuals whose jobs are at risk by providing them with the tools and knowledge to transition into new roles and industries.

Ultimately, it is critical that we work to ensure no one is left behind in the tech revolution The adaptability that apprenticeships can inject is key to ensuring that the workforce remains agile and resilient in the face of seismic economic shifts.

The case for employers

Business growth is dependent on being ahead of the curve, and that relies on creating a highly skilled workforce equipped with the skills to address future challenges. Apprenticeships can be flexible to whatever ‘highly skilled’ means within individual organisations.

For employers, investing in developing the skills of your staff will not only help improve business resilience and social mobility, but it will equally support staff retention. By providing staff with the opportunity to upskill, retrain for promotion or transfer to other areas of the business, you demonstrate a clear commitment to their personal and career development. 

When setting out to incorporate apprenticeship programmes in your business, it’s critical to take note of any areas of the business where external recruitment has slowed, and/or critical skill gaps are beginning to open up.

While the wider business community can often fail to grasp the full potential of apprenticeship programmes – often associating it exclusively with school and college leavers – it is important to note that apprenticeship programmes can offer on-the-job development to professionals at all levels of a business, for workers of all ages and helping fill critical skills gaps.

For SMEs in particular – many who may not have the financial capacity for an entire L&D department – finding the right training provider to help design the most effective apprenticeship programmes with you will be essential to delivering on your wider business goals.

Final thoughts

In a country where social mobility has long been an elusive dream for many, apprenticeships represent a tangible pathway forward towards real change. If designed correctly, apprenticeships can empower individuals to break free from the chains of circumstances and help them climb the ladder of opportunity.

As the UK seeks to reshape its social fabric and bridge the gap between privilege and potential, professional apprenticeships are a testament to the transformative power of education and opportunity.

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

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