Geoff Smith, CEO, Grayce

According to recent research, 42% of people think an apprenticeship provides better preparation for the future than university, which gives great insight into the changing perceptions surrounding education. The university versus apprenticeships debate has been ongoing for a long time. And while higher education may have been the favoured option, traditionally among middle-class families, it now seems the tide is turning, with attitudes towards apprenticeships changing. However, the emphasis on apprenticeships over degrees misses one important point – one size does not fit all. It also fails to address the digital skills gap crisis which will not be fixed through apprenticeships alone.

The ongoing debate continued

While an apprenticeship can offer necessary and valuable training, a degree lays a foundation which, for many employers, is still a base line requirement. In any case each have their merits. Apprenticeships offer hands-on learning and are a valid option for those who know exactly what career they want to launch themselves into.

Apprenticeships enable young people to enter the world of work from the get-go, giving them access to valuable hands-on experience. The other benefit is from a financial perspective, as no tuition fees are involved, and apprentices earn money while working, which is a very attractive prospect for many. They can however, silo a young person into a distinct sector with specific skills set. If this is case, it’s important to ensure they adhere to the right areas of demand across the job market so that the skills that the apprentices are developing are useful for their future job prospects.

Higher education grants more flexibility upon graduation, with many graduates acquiring valuable transferrable skills and life experience during their time at university. The independence gained at university provides a spectrum of life skills, which are essential and transferrable to lots of different job roles. With university, individuals can choose from a variety of courses and can often tailor their course by picking modules that align with their passions. A university degree will offer more open-ended career opportunities.

What employers value in a university degree is the focus on education and research. The market is seeking individuals with the propensity to continuously learn in a particular field, and a degree acknowledges someone’s ability and appetite to learn. With many organisations now taking into consideration the need to upskill to build business resilience, those who show a commitment to learning will be of greater benefit to their employer.

An increasing number of employers are looking for employees that can hit the ground running. In addition to working hard to gain a good degree, students that engage with extra-curricular activities and obtain work experience to develop skills, such as communication and teamwork, are often better prepared for the world of work than those that don’t. Graduates who take all aspects of university by the horns and do more than just study and gain the degree (whether volunteering or doing pro-bono work) are the ones at the top of the list – even those that have a ‘side hustle’ business tend to show the maturity and energy that employers want.

Bridging the skills gap

Despite this increase in focus on higher education and apprenticeships to support our next generation of workers, our country still faces a crippling skills crisis, especially in relation to STEM skills. According to research, 89% of employers struggle to recruit the skilled staff they need and a further 38% state they believe the UK education system was failing to create the skills required. We ourselves are experiencing an influx of demand for roles in change, data and tech, as digital transformation across a number of industry sectors continues to gather pace.

Another recent study on the skills gaps and shortages revealed that employers found the jobs most difficult to fill were managers and team leaders (47%), followed by specialist roles such as digital analysts, engineers, marketing and IT staff (32%). These employers believe educational institutions need to become better aligned with the needs of businesses. At the same time, according to the ONS over a quarter (25.5%) of graduates who are employed are in unskilled or low-skilled roles, so it’s clear there is a mismatch between what employers need and what the current cohort of new starters can provide.

Some universities are too slow to adapt to future workforce skill demands, as are some apprenticeship providers. However, it’s essential that we continue to bridge this gap by developing the young, talented, and digitally native generation and equipping them with what they need to walk into high-skilled jobs where they are valued.

The answer lies in supporting emerging talent

There is no doubt that the skills gap is widening, digital and data transformation is increasing, and the emerging workforce is being underutilised. Undeniably, neither apprenticeships nor higher education can be considered as a silver bullet to the skills gap crisis, unless reform is undertaken within these systems. While each path offers various benefits, employers are now seeking skills that are acquired from both paths.

Upon leaving university, graduates should look to continue to develop in-demand skills. Curious graduates are a key part of the answer to the digital change talent demand equation. By continuing to offer support to graduate talent, businesses can shape well-rounded professionals, help close the skills gap and build long-term capabilities to meet future requirements.

By Geoff Smith, CEO, Grayce

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