It’s time to take apprenticeships seriously

They have been hailed as a gold standard education pathway by David Cameron. They are an alternative to university in a time of rising tuition fees and fewer employment prospects

Over recent years, apprenticeships have gained a great deal of support from businesses, learning providers and government, enabling a rapid increase in numbers. This has placed the vocational learning pathway under a great deal of scrutiny, but I believe the stories of short courses, a lack of work experience and no jobs at the end of all the training are outnumbered by examples of apprenticeship successes.

The truth is that high-quality apprenticeships are vitally important for developing the high-level skills, experience and knowledge required in today’s workplace. They are also helping to bridge skills gaps and train workers for a wide range of sectors, from engineering, manufacturing and construction to health, business, law and IT, as well as emerging areas such as green technologies. To take one example: it has been forecast that the engineering and manufacturing sector will need more than 2 million new workers by the time today’s primary school pupils reach working age as skilled and experienced employees retire, according to Engineering UK. This sector relies heavily on apprenticeships to attract and recruit new talent, and there are countless examples of their benefit to both businesses and the apprentices themselves, many of whom have progressed to become managing directors or hold other senior posts.

In an independent survey recently carried out on behalf of EAL, the awarding organisation for the sector, it was found that more than 70% of employers feel that apprenticeships are at least of equal value to a university degree to help people prepare for and progress in the workplace. More than a quarter said they are more relevant. Whereas universities are widely seen as places to learn the theory behind a profession, high-quality apprenticeships provide focused, on-the-job learning, meaning that when apprentices finish their training they are fully prepared for the world of work. There has been increasing criticism of students leaving university underprepared to contribute in the workplace, necessitating time to adjust after they start a new job, which can be frustrating and expensive for employers. On the other hand, one advantage businesses are finding with apprenticeships is that they can tailor programmes to provide learners with exactly the right skills required to do the job.

Government initiatives, funding and policy changes are also reinforcing apprenticeships as an alternative to higher education, as businesses gain greater support and freedom to offer places and train employees. Now there are £1,500 payment incentives available for small employers, £250m to boost business investment in skills and apprenticeships, reduction in red-tape and promises to ensure that all programmes last a minimum of 12 months. There has never been as much support available. On top of this, there has been £25m invested in higher apprenticeships, to support the expansion of programmes up to degree equivalent.

Higher education has its advantages as well – I’m not arguing otherwise – but during these austere times, when unemployment is rising alongside the cost of education, people need options. The vocational learning route is providing a much needed alternative. Don’t blindly assume a degree is the only gateway to a better career. If you are looking for a job after you leave school, want to retrain following redundancy, or are simply wishing to move into a new sector, it’s worth taking the time to consider all your options. Ask yourself the question: what is the best pathway into the career I want? Increasingly often, an apprenticeship could be the answer for you.

Ann Watson is managing director of EAL, an organisation that awards qualifications and develops skills for the engineering and manufacturing industries.

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Paul Champion
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