From education to employment

Are apprenticeships the new graduate scheme?

After years of the government supporting apprenticeships (in rhetoric, at least), Ed Miliband has stuck his oar in, promising to make apprenticeships a key plank of regenerating Britain. The stated pledge, echoed elsewhere by shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, is to make the number of apprentices equal to the number of undergraduates.

It’s a fine goal. As noted in the OECD’s recent Education at a Glance report, the UK has seen a quantum leap in higher education over the past decade or so, with the number of working age people with a university or college qualification outnumbering those who finished education at 16 or 18 – 41% to 37%. This is a great success for a policy of widening access to university. However, as Miliband and Hunt have astutely observed, if roughly half the young population goes to university, that leaves roughly half who don’t – who have undoubtedly been under-provided for by existing schemes.

As great as such widespread access to higher education is, it’s not without its failings. For starters, there is a noted skills gap. The left-leaning think tank IPPR claimed in August that although falling, long-term youth unemployment is at least partially structural, pointing to the incongruence between labour demand and qualifications. For example, 94,000 people were trained in beauty and hair for just 18,000 jobs, compared to 123,000 trained in construction and engineering for 275,000 jobs.

Further, employers have long complained of graduates lacking basic employment skills, a complaint supported by the OECD’s finding that although the UK has one of the highest proportions of graduates in the workforce, that has failed to translate into higher skill levels (according to their own tests). The think tank also found that widening university access has done little for social mobility, with social background still a large factor in whether or not someone completes a degree.

The inefficacy of a university degree for great swathes of students is borne out by the number of graduates doing non-graduate work. ONS figures from November found that nearly half of new graduates were in jobs that don’t require a degree – 47% up from 39%. Admittedly this is partially explained by the financial crisis, but when fees are as high as they are, it does beg the question: what is a degree for?

All of which suggests that just sticking every teenager we can into university isn’t working, and more attention needs to be paid to 18 year old school leavers. Firstly, to provide skills and a route into employment for young non-graduates lacking both qualifications and experience. Secondly, because there needs to be a viable, respected alternative to university, so that young people don’t pursue higher education just because they think it’s “the next step”, when vocational training might be more appropriate – racking up debt for a potentially slim to non-existent return. And thirdly, to create a socially mobile path that doesn’t include university, which is failing to deliver its promised upward mobility.

Expanding apprenticeships to equal university goers is a good idea. Other than providing a ready-made, earn as you learn way for young people to gain both skills and employment, hiring apprentices offers clear advantages to employers. They get to take on relatively cheap, state-subsidised labour, that not only learns the skills the employer wants, but will be familiar with their esoteric systems and processes.

And that can be a significant saving in the long run. Numerous studies have shown how promoting internally saves huge slices of money and time (and therefore more money). The big buzz in corporate HR is about retaining talent, promoting from within. It takes 30-33 months for an external recruit to integrate into a senior financial role. Imagine how much time and money a company could save by taking on an 18 year old and grooming them from junior up to senior.

But there are challenges that no government has so far managed to equal. Probably the biggest problem is one of image. After so many years promoting higher education, apprenticeships have remained locked in a blue collar paradigm from Britain’s manufacturing past. And when so much of the country self-identifies as middle class (even if they’re not) it’s hard to persuade youngsters an apprenticeship isn’t below them.

It’s an image not helped by the sort of short duration, poor quality schemes that offer little in the way of transferable skills that have until recently blighted under-19s. They have been clamped down on (partially explaining a drop in new apprentices) but are still recent memories.

And despite comprising the largest bloc of UK employment, there is a low take-up of apprenticeships amongst SMEs. Hardly surprising when it requires extra paperwork, up-front investment, and yes, time to teach someone something. Taking on an apprentice needs to be easy. Too much is currently left up to the employer.

So it’s encouraging to see Hunt talk about following the German model. Institutionalising apprenticeships properly. Minimum of two years in duration, ideally three, and standardised, quality controlled qualifications up to the equivalent of degree standard – so they’re not just tied to their employer when they finish.

If apprenticeships can be implemented properly, we just might see a wider uptake, particularly if more ‘white collar’ apprenticeships are on the table, like that offered by Accenture, allowing the schemes to shrug off the tradesman stigma. If that can happen, apprenticeships really might become the new graduate scheme.

And that’s something we should all hope for – apprenticeships have far more potential to close our skills gap and improve social mobility than the current degree system.

Sarah Willis is a freelance writer

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