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Fay Gibbin

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How apprenticeships can open the door to success


In the last few years, apprenticeships have been backed by the Government as a cost-effective, credible response to the demand for a highly-skilled UK workforce in an increasingly competitive global market. They have made apprenticeships available to more businesses, as the Skills Funding Agency has supported 20,000 higher apprenticeships in the last year and the Government announced an additional £20m to fund them until the end of March 2016. However, despite their best efforts, many are sceptical that apprenticeships offer a credible alternative to university and the stigma attached to vocational training remains at large. 

So, why are apprenticeships so vital in helping the UK keep up with the proverbial Joneses across the pond, and do they really offer a credible alternative to the tried and tested traditional university education?

An alternative route  

A new report from the CIPD released this year revealed that increasing numbers of graduates have outstripped the creation of more high-skilled jobs, and as a result, the UK has too many over-qualified graduates entering non-graduate jobs. 

It also reveals that graduate over-qualification is a particular problem for the UK, which has 58.8% of graduates in non-graduate jobs, a percentage exceeded only by Greece and Estonia. The findings particularly highlight the affect this has on apprenticeship-led industries.

Higher apprenticeships at level 6 and 7 are equivalent to a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and therefore have been recognised as the perfect alternative to the classroom-based University degree. There were 18,000 apprentices on higher apprenticeships in England during the academic year 2013/2014. In fact, over-subscribed university courses coupled with the average student reported to leave university with a debt of between £35,000 to £50,000, means that the 'earn while you learn', 'hands-on' concept of apprenticeships is becoming increasingly attractive to both students and employers alike.  

Academic credibility  

Limited information, advice and guidance is provided by education providers on vocational studies, particularly to those deemed ‘too intelligent’ to enrol onto an apprenticeship programme. In fact, to enrol on a higher apprenticeship, entrants are required to hold a recognised level 3 qualification, typically A-levels, an advanced level diploma, NVQ level 3 or an advanced apprenticeship.

A study by ICM revealed that employers in England actually rate qualified higher apprentices as 25% more employable than those who took an alternative route to work, perhaps due to the practical knowledge they offer. 

What we as educators must do is encourage young minds to understand that vocational learning can be an equal alternative to traditional academic study. As a result, businesses who provide the right training and opportunities to school leavers are rewarded with enthusiastic, dedicated individuals, who hold a company’s values and work ethic, and who have practical experience within a workplace environment.

Routes to success 

Higher Apprenticeships are available in a range of industries, and are recognised as a sound vocational route to degree level qualifications. Level 4 and 5 are equivalent to a higher education certificate, a higher education diploma or a foundation degree, level 6 is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree, and level 7 a masters.

For those on Higher Apprenticeships, they can expect to work towards at least a Level 4 competence-based qualification, functional skills and, in some cases, a knowledge-based qualification, such as a foundation degree, Higher National Diploma, or undergraduate degree. Some training providers may offer a few dedicated apprentices the chance to go on to gain a master's degree. 

Who are higher apprentices?

Higher Apprenticeships require hard work and dedication, so only those who are prepared to put in the time and effort required to succeed need apply. 

They are a great way to earn a wage while learning at the highest level and progress into higher skilled occupations, and offer an obvious path to a person’s ultimate ambition. It helps if the apprentice has a clear career goal, which will ultimately give them the drive and focus needed to complete the programme. 

As a vocational qualification, those who are practically or creatively minded welcome the step away from a pure theory-based learning style. However, those more ‘bookish’ academics can also enjoy the structure and coursework needed to back up the practical, on the job training. Either way, a strong work ethic and organisation are required to balance the two. 

Benefits to a business 

We’ve established why they’re important to individuals and the UK workforce as a whole, but how do Higher Apprenticeships deliver for individual businesses? Just like entry level apprenticeships, they allow businesses to tailor the programme to their own business and industry needs. Not only can they be used to upskill an existing workforce, the training opportunities they offer also attract a higher calibre of candidates in the early recruitment process. 

Of course, knowledgeable and motivated staff teams help to increase productivity and improve service, as well as develop a motivated and committed workforce who are trained in the businesses values and philosophy.

Higher in value 

As university fees continue to increase and employers call for more employable skills, the value of Higher Apprenticeships continue to rise. The Government are continuing to back them through extra funding and incentives, so their popularity is expected to rise as high as the ambitions of the apprentices who enrol on them. 

We cannot ignore the need for a highly-skilled workforce if we are to remain competitive within global industries, and I believe Higher Apprenticeships offer the UK a practical, cost effective way to achieve this. 

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Fay Gibbin

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