Despite being one of the most accessible and efficient ways to upskill talent, dismissive attitudes towards apprenticeships are still rife in the UK. Deeply ingrained associations with trade, low wages, and a perception that they put a glass ceiling on progression, mean that apprenticeships have long considered something not to aspire to. Because of this, and in spite of their widespread use across all sectors and at all levels, it can be difficult for people to see apprenticeships for what they really are; a highly effective way for individuals to gain the essential skills that businesses so desperately need.
But we now have an opportunity to address the stigma once and for all, and create a new meaning in popular culture for apprenticeships.
With the new standards, policy changes, and government levy keeping them in the headlines, there is growing recognition that apprenticeships are quality, tailored programmes that provide an opportunity for employers to cultivate their own talent, as well as for individuals to reach their potential. So let’s seize the moment.
First off, apprenticeships need to be adequately represented in core influential environments; schools, homes, the workplace. This should start with an overhaul in careers education – schools still push students towards A-Levels and University, and we need to ensure that they are incentivised to communicate the value of apprenticeships (for example, awarding UCAS points for their successful completion). Whilst pay for apprentices is improving, government bodies and policy makers should continue pushing for increases to the apprentice minimum wage to make them a more attractive option – and indeed to reflect the role they can play in filling critical UK skills gaps.
One of the primary motivations for those undertaking a new training programme is that they will come out more employable. The fact that employers themselves created the standards, and in some cases are contributing a portion of their profits to their ongoing maintenance, will reassure potential learners who may be considering an apprenticeship. If individuals are aware that the criteria in the standards and the skills designed to come out of them have been cherry-picked by industry leaders to ensure impact and employability, they will be better equipped to decide whether becoming an apprentice is the right move for their future.
As with any branding exercise, there should be an element of proactive promotion. Too often, the benefits of apprenticeships are overlooked– ease of career advancement, earning capacity and debt-free training programme (people often focus on the horror stories, but the actual average salary for an apprentice is much higher and increasing at a much faster rate than overall wage growth).
Success stories are invaluable for bringing the theory of apprenticeship benefits to life.
There are plenty of renowned names who enjoyed an apprenticeship at some point in their careers, from Rick Stein to Peter Digby to Michael Caine. Whilst they bring the glamour, internal apprenticeship ambassadors are critical to enhancing the reputation of apprentices within the organisation itself.
Employers must make a concerted effort in this initial phase of the new standards to put some of their most highly-qualified and senior staff members through apprenticeship programmes. In leading by example, and essentially putting their money where their mouth is, apprentice managers, directors and CEOs will inevitably lead to apprenticeships being held in higher esteem.
Lots of employers tell me that they rebrand their apprenticeship programmes so as not to put off existing employees. Whilst understandable, this approach does nothing to promote and enhance the apprenticeship brand.
Rather than attempting to disguise the training, we need to give employers the tools to communicate why people should choose to do an apprenticeship – because, not in spite of, it being an apprenticeship.
Part of the reason employers are concerned about the naming of their apprenticeships is that they are concerned staff – many of whom have bachelors and masters degrees – would consider an apprenticeship a step back. However, those people who wholeheartedly embrace apprenticeships do so because they understand that at its core, an apprenticeship is a quality programme that leads to a specific outcome i.e. the development of a crucial new skill. By focusing on this unique aspect of apprenticeships, the golden rule of ‘train to gain’, we can drive home the message that they are not designed to build on existing knowledge, nor to prepare learners for subsequent training, but co-exist in parallel with other – perhaps more academic – forms of learning.
Shifting the general consensus must be a collective responsibility. Unless it is a priority on the agenda of every stakeholder group - employers, employees, young people, parents, awarding bodies, government figures, schools, universities, colleges – any attempt to improve perceptions of apprenticeships will be too piecemeal to achieve any lasting impact.
The apprentice brand needs time to shrug off its dusty image, and get to the point where people, no matter what their profession, respect the value apprenticeships add.
It’s already feeling more achievable than it was a year – even a month - ago. Now it’s a case of keeping up the momentum, and making sure that we all continue to hold up apprenticeships as the best in class of work-based training.
Jake Tween, Head of Apprenticeships, ILM