Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

Degree Apprenticeships are one of the most exciting developments to happen in the school leaver market for years, but more needs to be done to increase uptake of the programmes.

Government statistics show that Level 6 (bachelor’s degree level) and Level 7 (master’s degree level) have shockingly low participation rates in comparison to other levels of apprenticeship. While there were 259,430 Intermediate Apprenticeship starts in England in 2016/17, 195,770 Advanced Apprenticeship starts, and 34,470 Levels 4 and 5 Higher Apprenticeships, the number of people starting Level 6 (bachelor’s degree level) programmes for the year was just 1,620 and there were only 50 Level 7 (master’s degree level) starts.

By comparison, 505,680 applicants were placed on full-time degree courses at UK universities in 2017, with one in three English 18-year-olds securing university places that year.

More young people should be enjoying the benefits of these apprenticeship programmes. Not only do they offer the chance to achieve a degree without the burden of debt (employers pay tuition fees, while government pays for training) but those completing Degree Apprenticeships are especially employable, as each programme has been designed with the industry’s needs in mind.

Groups of businesses, universities and colleges develop bespoke degree courses that allow students to build up skills and experience relevant to that particular industry, making them very employable in the future. Degree apprentices will often be offered a job with their employer at the end of the programme, but even if that is not the case – or if they decide to move on – graduates of these programmes will have a very attractive, specific set of skills and qualifications with which to progress in their chosen industry.

Another advantage of a Degree Apprenticeship is the working relationships that apprentices forge with their employees and colleagues, developing the so-called ‘soft skills’ – effective teamwork, communications, negotiating skills, ability to work under pressure, problem-solving – that employers so desperately want in young recruits. 

The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) did research with 174 organisations last year about the quality of candidates coming straight out of university, from standard university degree courses. The chief executive of the AGR, Stephen Isherwood, said at the time that employers reported a lack of people skills and a "fundamental understanding" of the world of work, as well as lacking "the ability to work with people and get things done when things go wrong".

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The skills that standard graduates often lack, despite their academic credentials, are ones that are developed during the workplace element of a Degree Apprenticeship, so the young people completing these programmes are armed with a desirable, and quite rare, skills set alongside their university qualification.

Chloe Richmond, Customer Category Manager at Nestlé, completed the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship with the company and has benefited hugely from it.

She says the combination of work and study was particularly useful, as it meant she could immediately apply the theory she was learning to the real-life workplace, but also use skills and knowledge picked up in the workplace during her studies.

“For the majority of assignments we could apply the things we learnt at work and vice- versa,” she says. “For example in my Innovation module at Level 6, I was able to apply some of the skills and practices I had learnt whilst working as a Marketing Executive on the KitKat brand six months before.”

Chloe says that juggling study and work is a challenge but with support from her employer she’s reaping the rewards of hard work, and a well thought through programme – Nestlé have put in place proper channels for graduates of their apprenticeships to follow on completion of the scheme.

“The programme really has given me a fast start compared to other people my age,” says Chloe. “After my successful graduation from the scheme I moved into an accelerated Category role within the Confectionery business – the future looks bright and I’m looking forward to continuing my career with Nestlé.”

But these programmes don’t just benefit apprentices – they are also extremely advantageous to the employers who take the time to set them up. Nestlé has developed two bespoke programmes – the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship (CMDA) and the Operations Degree Apprenticeship, in partnership with Sheffield Hallam University – as well as working with a number of other employers to build the Food Industry Technical Professional Degree Apprenticeship with Nottingham Trent University.

Lucy Skrzeczkowski, Academy Pastoral Manager at Nestlé, says these programmes have all been developed to ensure the specific skills sets of new recruits to different parts of the business, and it’s already paying off.

“We have high expectations of all of our apprentices,” she says. “And we know many of our CMDAs who have completed their programmes are already rivalling their graduate counterparts with their rounded experience of our key commercial teams and their ability to make insightful business recommendations.

“Across all programmes, our apprentices have a unique perspective on what we do and how we do it, and more importantly what we need to do differently as a business in the future. As the consumers of today and tomorrow we know that both during and beyond their programmes, they will positively challenge and support us in driving the business forward.”

A good working relationship with partner universities and the embedding of solid support systems ensure Degree Apprenticeship programmes that apprentices are able to manage, despite the tough task of combining work with study.

“Effective time management and learning agility are skills we recruit for and develop amongst our apprentice population,” says Lucy. “Nestlé offers pastoral care, buddies and mentors, who all have a role to play in every apprentice’s successful development.

“Effective collaboration between Nestlé and our partner universities is fundamental to setting up our apprentices for success. This enables appropriate blending of the in-work and university experiences to ensure all our apprentices have the necessary support in every aspect of their individual journey.”

The benefits of university-level apprenticeships are being noticed by a variety of employers, which means more variety on offer to young people wanting to move into different industries. Consulting and technology services firm Capgemini developed its Degree Apprenticeship in Digital and Technology solutions and is already reaping the rewards.  

“Our apprentices have a strong work ethic and make huge commitment in terms of their time,” says Ben Rubery, Apprentice Programme Manager. “We’re extremely proud of our first Degree Apprentice graduates – the first to graduate in the UK with 64% receiving a first class mark. They bring an agile approach, a huge amount of collaborative spirit, and an infectious self drive to our business. Our programmes allow us to grow our own future leaders and technical specialists.”

One of these agile new apprentices is Jason Lloyd, who agrees with Nestlé apprentice Chloe that the programmes offer a great opportunity to put learning into practice.  

“The Degree Apprenticeship and my day-to-day work fit hand in hand,” he says. “The programme gives me exposure to lots of different topics – I’ve recently completed an accounting module, for example, and using this I’ve been able to understand some of the finance aspects of the client I’m working with.

Working full time and studying for a degree is challenging, however once you’ve established a routine it makes life easier. Working in a full time, 9-till-5 role helps to add to this structure, which I know a lot of university students struggle with. Capgemini also supports my time on programme with a study leave entitlement, and knowing that they pay for my tuition fees and pay me a salary is a real incentive for me to do well in my studies…and I still manage to have fun at weekends!”

EY – one of the ‘Big Four’ professional services firms – has recently converted its graduate programme into a Degree Apprenticeship, and will be recruiting to it from both schools and universities.

Another of the Big Four announced a new Degree Apprenticeship just weeks ago, but in the digital rather than accountancy field: KPMG aims to create its next generation of tech experts with KPMG360° Digital – a four-year programme combining a job with a BSc degree from BPP University in digital and technology solutions.

Here’s hoping that many more industries and businesses join employers like this in offering these potentially revolutionary programmes to our young people.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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