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Carolyn Blunt

Davies Learning Solutions


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Apprenticeships: from a second-rate option to a prestigious choice

Why apprenticeships are more essential than ever before.

It would be fair to say that apprenticeships have had an image problem in the past. Although they offer learners an opportunity to earn whilst studying, they’ve traditionally been viewed as a choice primarily for those unable to obtain a university place. Like many things in the past year, however, this view has been turned on its head in light of the high cost of university fees and the disruption of the global pandemic.

The government’s January 2021 Skills for Jobs whitepaper states that apprenticeships, “have been transformed from a second-rate option to a prestigious choice with excellent outcomes”.

As the UK faces what many economists predict will be the worst recession in 300 years, businesses and individuals will need to readjust their thinking. 

The UK has been renowned for centuries for producing graduates, but more recent statistics show we have been less effective at helping young people attain the technical skills that employers really want. A study by the Department of Education in 2018 revealed that only 4% of young people achieve a qualification at higher technical level by the age of 25, compared to the 33% who get a degree or above, but still only 66% of graduates are in high skilled employment.

Not just for the young

Apprenticeships are mapped to Levels 2-7 depending upon the depth and length of study, and can be blended with professional qualifications.  

Funding for apprenticeships is available to cover 95-100% of the training cost and The Institute of Apprenticeships lists all live ‘standards’ (at the time of writing there are 743), with some being added and some retired.  Employers are included in shaping the ‘standards’ as part of a trailblazer group, to introduce, refine, and ensure that the knowledge, skills and behaviours are the required ones for the roles.

Contrary to popular belief, apprenticeships are not just for young people or trades. In 2018-19, there were 742,400 people undertaking an apprenticeship of some kind in England, with 393,400 apprenticeship starts and 185,100 apprenticeship achievements.

The pandemic has since affected opportunities available, however. During lockdown across all industries, there were 58,160 apprenticeship starts reported to between 23 March and 31 July 2020 – fewer than the 107,750 reported for this period at this point last year, a decrease of 46.0%.  

Recent analysis shows that technical courses can lead to better career outcomes for those who follow them. Men with a higher technical (level 4) qualification earn on average £5,100 more at age 30, and women with a higher technical (level 5) qualification earn £2,700 more at age 30, than those with a degree (level 6).

Making use of the Apprenticeships Levy

With economic pressures tightening corporate L&D budgets, more employers are looking to use their levy pot more effectively and work to change any stigma and perceptions held by their staff that an apprenticeship is too low level, or that they wouldn’t be eligible due to prior study.

In fact, the Apprenticeship Levy can be used to fund senior leadership MBAs, professional qualifications (CIPD, CMI, CIMA etc.) and tackle gaps in skills and knowledge to meet the individual and organisational goals. Technical professional qualifications have continued to be achieved throughout the lockdown restrictions in the UK, with live virtual classroom sessions being delivered, alongside access to digital content and resources, as well as video coaching.

One apprentice who is studying for his chartered exams at the age of 43 using the Apprenticeship Levy explained: “I have a 17 year old daughter and a 14 year old son who are studying as well, so during lockdown we are all working from home and studying together. All of my apprenticeship experience has been delivered remotely and has all gone very smoothly. My coach has been a very caring and encouraging guide throughout. It is good to remember that apprenticeships are designed for anyone of any age who wants to progress”.  

Boosting diversity and inclusion

In addition to creating opportunities for all ages, apprenticeship providers are working hard to create equal opportunities for women and ethnic minority groups. Diversity and inclusion policy and strategy has risen to the fore in organisations during recent years and many are now in the implementation and action phase.  

There is equality in the number of male and female apprentices, however the differences in sectors, pay and career progression are still apparent. Health and social care has a higher proportion of women entering apprenticeships, with 25% of all female apprentices being in this sector. In business administration, it’s 14% compared to 6% of male apprentices. Statistics show that there is one female apprentice in construction to every 50 males, and one female in engineering for every 25 male apprentices.

Programmes such as Innovateher, Future is Female and others are working hard to bring more women into STEM fields and The Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network’s remit is to make a positive change to diversity and inclusion in apprenticeships and increase representation from minority groups and those from disadvantaged areas.

Growing the reputation of apprenticeships

The UK government has set out three main actions to continue improving the perception of apprenticeships:

  1. To support more people to start apprenticeships, helping employers to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic with the skilled employees they need to grow.
  2. To continue to respond to feedback from employers to improve programmes, including by making more use of apprenticeship funding, making it easier for levy-paying employers to transfer funds and making apprenticeships work in more sectors.
  3. To raise quality, ensuring every apprentice has the best experience and reaches their potential.

In 2021-22, the government is making £2.5 billion available to support apprenticeships – including for employers who do not pay the levy. Non-levy paying firms will continue to be able to reserve funding for 95% of apprenticeship training and assessment costs for up to ten staff at any one time. This will enable smaller employers to access the apprenticeships they need and use funding to develop both new starters and existing staff.

As the UK faces what many economists predict will be the worst recession in 300 years, businesses and individuals will need to readjust their thinking and use every opportunity they can to acquire the skills needed to get us through this challenging time. Apprenticeships present a clear way forward for upskilling the nation in response to this pressure. 

Interested in this topic? Read What lies beneath: the skills issue undermining inclusive growth.

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Carolyn Blunt


Read more from Carolyn Blunt

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