Every year I want to believe this will be the year the media stops stereotyping Apprenticeships.
Every year I am disappointed as the same old cliché stories about hairdressers, motor vehicle mechanics and construction workers get trotted out.
In fact, this year, with the General Election just two months away, it is even worse. All the main political parties are trying to persuade the electorate they will be the saviour of Apprenticeships – and that Apprenticeships will in turn be the salvation of the UK economy.
The Conservatives have gone for quantity, setting a target of three million new Apprenticeships if they get re-elected. Labour has gone for “quality”, suggesting Level 2 Apprenticeships will become a thing of the past and that all Apprenticeships will be Level 3 (A level equivalent) if they are elected.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are claiming that they delivered nearly two million Apprenticeships during the life of this Parliament – somewhat strange since they have also launched a campaign to “Bring Back Apprenticeships”.
The truth is the range of Apprenticeships on offer today is vast – in fact trying to cover the full spectrum and level of qualifications that come under the one heading is a challenge in itself.
It isn’t easy trying to explain to young people the “Apprenticeship option” covers everything from a Level 2 qualification (equivalent to five GCSEs) to Level 4 (foundation degree). And it becomes even more difficult explaining to young people, their parents – and dare I say it – teachers that Apprenticeships are not only a good way into vocational skills for some 16-year-olds, but they are also highly competitive and well-rewarded when considering a Higher Apprenticeship in areas such as IT, accounting, law or engineering.
It is sad but true that the term “vocational skills” still conjures up images of hairdressers and beauticians, caterers or construction workers, and that’s in part, at least, because the Apprenticeship “brand” has been poorly marketed. There is so much more to Apprenticeships than these old chestnuts.
A few years ago, I found myself working in London, supporting IT recruitment and training for some of the UK’s largest financial institutions. It was there I saw for myself a fundamental “flaw” in their recruitment process.
It was true the banks were able to attract some of the best graduates in the country, people who had spent three years learning the theory of IT – or even some unrelated subject. But once they were bank employees, the graduates immediately needed to be retrained to give them the real-world skills and qualifications necessary to operate in a Microsoft/Citrix or similar environment.
Those qualifications were both time-consuming and costly – normally in the region of £15,000 per graduate. HR teams were also scathing about graduates expectations to come in and “manage” rather than working hard to be successful.
The alternative was an apprentice. As part of their programme, apprentices received much of this training and the required qualifications. They also received a good salary and incurred no student debt. On top of that, they had experience of life in the workplace, references from employers and so on.
Now, I am not saying that the only route in to IT should be through Apprenticeships; traditional degree programmes have an important role to play, but what I am advocating is the Apprenticeship route as a real alternative.
IT is not the only area where Apprenticeships provide such an option. We have seen a recent trend in accountancy and law where young people face a genuine dilemma between university or an Apprenticeship.
And here’s a thing that not many people know: many of the post-graduate, professional, training programmes operated by even the largest accountancy practices are actually provided by specialist training organisations such as Kaplan or BPP – and these same organisations also run Apprenticeship programmes, which deliver professional qualifications through their Higher Level Apprenticeship programmes.
A cursory glance at the National Apprenticeship Service’s website will show such vacancies as an apprentice chemistry scientist, IT support engineer or finance apprentice. If you investigate GetMyFirstJob you will see just how many vacancies there are in careers as diverse as social media and digital marketing to law, the pharmaceutical industry or engineering from employers such as JP Morgan, Waitrose, Agilisys, Venturi, Holiday Inn and (I have to admit my personal favourite) the AMG Petronas Formula 1 team.
There are many other higher level programmes which are real alternatives to university, allowing young people to get the professional qualifications not normally achieved by graduates until they have been in role for 12 to 24 months. What’s more they come out of an Apprenticeship without debt, with a salary and a job, at a time when their university-educated peers are just starting their quest for work.
Maybe part of the problem is there are so many opportunities for young people that perhaps Apprenticeships are overlooked in favour of tried and better-understood pathways.
And it has to be said that for young people who do decide an Apprenticeship is the best route the path is not always easy. Being accepted onto a programme normally means they have to persuade both an employer and a training provider that they are the best candidates for the job. Employers and training providers will often be assessing them against skills not gained through school experiences alone.
It is also important to recognise Apprenticeship funding is significantly different to that in schools. Rather than a model that provides funding for each pupil with success gauged by progress or attainment, full funding for an Apprenticeship is only paid when a student successfully completes his or her qualification.
Furthermore, the employer also has to pay a salary to the young person who is being employed. Both of these parties are therefore showing a real financial commitment to every apprentice and as a result expect something in return. That something involves both a real understanding and appreciation that an Apprenticeship is a job, very often a foot on the first rung of a professional career ladder.
Sadly I am routinely reminded that despite the opportunities Apprenticeships offer, young people appear not to comprehend the basic rules of engagement.
The most common issue training providers and colleges report is that young people do not respond to email, text or telephone even when there is an interview on offer. Furthermore, when an interview is arranged, the no-show rate is typically between 25 to 50 per cent. I would love to understand why.
Here’s something else to ponder: in many schools I have visited there appears to be a different culture in the 6th form. Young people are allowed more freedom, in preparation for either university or the “real world”.
This more relaxed approach means students are allowed to dress how they want – jeans and hoodies tend to be “de rigueur”, their study time is less structured and there’s more free time, this often extends to common room behaviour and in some cases attendance at lessons. All of which may well provide a good stepping stone to university life, but it does not prepare young people for work, where turning up on time, every day, smartly dressed are simple, basic requirements.
Beyond presentation and punctuality, employers want to hire people who have initiative and drive, who can operate beyond their comfort zone and can think creatively.
But if your students want to progress to university, these are the skills and attitudes that will also bring them to the attention of admissions tutors. Still the rules of engagement apply, you have got to get in before you can get on...
If we were really preparing 16 to 18-year-olds for the world of work, we would expect them to be punctual – probably even arriving early. We would expect them to be smartly dressed and to set a standard for the rest of the school or college community, for these are the basics of working life.
If you think this is unfair, here’s a simple question. If your teachers behaved like your 6th form, what would you say? If you allow 6th-formers lax behaviour then consider if you are really preparing them for work.
I was speaking recently to a parent who clashed with her teenage son over a “work experience” interview he had with Waitrose. The school hadn’t told him he ought to wear a suit, or at least a shirt and tie for the interview so when his mother asked whether his suit still fitted, the conversation ended with: “Ugh – it’s only Waitrose! The school never told us we had to dress-up!”
Why is there such a gap in young people’s knowledge about the world of work? Partly, it is true, because their expectations have been skewed by reality television shows and talent competitions – and short-cuts to success are almost an expectation. So we have to manage those expectations better.
And it is easy to blame the schools. Schools are too often the ready target for MPs, business organisations and the media for all that’s wrong with our young people, but how much more can we expect of teachers, faced with a never-ending reform programme, funding cuts, targets and an increasing workload?
So who will take responsibility for imparting employability skills? I know it shouldn’t fall on schools alone, parents and employers all have their parts to play – and many of us are still calling for an impartial careers service for all our young people.
The need to ready our young people for their future lives is a real issue that isn’t going to go away – from informing them of their choices and chances, to furnishing them with the tools and techniques to do well.
I for one will be delighted when teachers, parents and career advisors use the word “Apprenticeship” just as often as “university” – and can provide as much enthusiasm and information about both routes.
After all, isn’t it about time that Apprenticeships stopped playing second fiddle to universities and instead the two become real equals so that our young people can hit the right note every time in their future lives?
David Allison is MD of GetMyFirstJob, which works with colleges and providers to help them attract and fill Apprenticeship vacancies. It is used by more than 170,000 young people to help them identify their career.