Earn while you learn: making Apprenticeships the gold standard
Apprenticeships are a unique way to combine learning with earning, improving skills while building a career. Their renaissance in recent decades is welcome. But we need clear action, including a new Apprentice Premium, to make apprenticeships the gold standard.
The expansion of higher education over recent decades has been a success. It has opened up opportunity more widely than ever before and helped our economy better meet its skills needs. And the proportion of young people in higher education is not high compared to countries such as Canada and South Korea. But a three year, full-time undergraduate degree is not the right answer for everyone.
The UK's historic weakness has been to fail to offer other routes to learning and building a career that are credible with employers and people.
Apprenticeships have the potential to be such a route, combining learning with earning. Successive Governments have expanded their numbers over recent decades. The UK Government has a target of 3 million in England by 2020, while the Governments of Wales and Scotland have similar commitments to increase the number of apprenticeships.
Today's apprenticeships are a world away from the rose-tinted memories many have of shipyards and factories, though engineering and manufacturing remain crucial. They are more likely to be the management and business administration apprentices from Pimlico Plumbers I met at a recent Learning & Work Institute event.
Apprenticeships will only be a success if they are high quality, accessible, and meet the needs and challenges of the modern economy. Young people leaving full-time education today are likely to have 50 year careers. This is an exciting prospect – bringing a galaxy of opportunities, many not even imagined today. But it means an apprenticeship needs to prepare them for a career of change, rather than a job for life.
We need to do more to ensure everyone who could benefit from an apprenticeship can access one. Many young people (including carers and parents) may need a ‘flexible hours’ apprenticeship to fit around their other responsibilities. Flexible working is increasingly common; we need to make flexible apprenticeships just as common. Our forthcoming research has shown that people from BAME backgrounds are half as likely to be successful in their apprenticeship application. Sector and geography play a role (apprenticeships are lowest in places like London which have higher BAME populations), but we need more research and greater work on role models and outreach.
Careers advice also needs an overhaul. No-one had mentioned apprenticeships to the apprentices at our event while they were at school. Our research also shows that the role of parents, role models and friends is also crucial. Apprenticeships should be just as high profile an option as A Levels and university. That needs concerted action with parents and community groups, but also a requirement on schools to open their doors to advice on apprenticeships.
We also need a laser-like focus on quality, with always a risk that this is sacrificed to achieve a quantity target. For me, quality goes beyond minimum duration requirements and Ofsted inspections, though these are important. Quality is also about the apprentice experience – such as whether they get a mentor who isn't their line manager, or work experience outside their current role. And it's about whether their apprenticeship prepares them for a successful career- such as whether they are in employment after their Apprenticeship is completed and whether their earnings increase. Learning & Work Institute have argued these wider measures of quality should be brought together into an Apprentice Charter, co-designed by apprentices and employers.
You can't write an article about apprenticeships without mentioning the Apprenticeship Levy. It's an over-used phrase, but it really is a game changer. At Learning & Work Institute, we’re pleased the Government took on some of the proposals we set out to make the Levy work in our publication ‘3 million careers’. In particular, ensuring 16-17 year old apprentices are fully-funded (just as they would be at school or college) and putting additional resources into young people and deprived areas.
But we think there’s further to go. In particular, we want to see a new Apprentice Premium, building on the Pupil Premium. This would be an additional payment to employers and providers taking on an apprentice who is 16-17 years old or from a deprived area. Over time, this could be extended to incentivise apprenticeships in sectors and occupations prioritised in the UK’s Industrial Strategy as this develops. And we think there’s a clear case that providers should compete on quality alone, with fixed prices for each apprenticeship to avoid a race to the bottom.
The new Skills Minister, Robert Halfon, has a genuine and passionate commitment to apprenticeships. He has rightly said that employers need to be at their heart. But so too do Apprentices. That way, we can make apprenticeships the gold standard of learning and careers.
Learning and Work Institute