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The value of apprenticeships for individuals, society and the economy

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  • Education
  • Higher education
  • Skills

Students today have many career options and pathways they can take to kick-start their journeys into the working world.

At the tender ages of 18 and 19, young people are posed with the difficult task of choosing which path to go down and its usually one of two options - University or Apprenticeship?

This week marks National Apprenticeship Week, dedicated to celebrating the impact, commitment and successes of apprentices across the UK. To commemorate the week, I wanted to use my platform as an apprentice to challenge the negative perception of apprenticeships.

Celebrating the impact of apprenticeships for National Apprenticeship Week

When faced with the question ‘university or apprenticeship?’ the most common answer is still ‘university’.

With the UK being home to some of the world’s leading educational institutions, it seems like the most sensible choice. You get a degree, obtain cultural or social experiences and meet a diverse range of people.

Apprenticeships are sometimes deemed revolutionary in higher education when in fact they offer the same, if not more, than a typical university pathway.

There are so many apprenticeships out there, from intermediate and higher-level apprenticeships to even degree apprenticeships – giving students a degree and work experience. I embarked on a four year degree apprenticeship with the RSA in September and have found it to be an intriguing and fulfilling challenge so far.

This week’s ‘National Apprenticeship Week’ is dedicated to celebrating the impact, commitment and successes of apprentices across the UK, as well as promoting apprenticeships of all kinds to parents, prospective students and even employers not currently taking on apprentices.

This year the theme is ‘Look Beyond’ which aims to celebrate the ‘diversity and value that apprenticeships bring to employers, apprentices and communities across England today’.

How apprenticeships work

Although very common across the UK, apprenticeships remain relatively unknown to various stakeholders in our economy, such as teachers or parents.

Apprenticeships combine on-the-job learning and upskilling with studies - usually towards a qualification or degree at a college, university or from the employer themselves - whilst earning a salary. Apprenticeships come in many forms, from intermediate to degree level and tend to last between one to six years.

They are different depending on the employer or organisation. While some apprenticeships demand working across different departments and teams in order to develop a stronger organisational understanding, others may require specialising in a specific team or skill within a company; it really does depend on the employer and the outline of the apprenticeship.

Challenging negative perceptions of apprenticeships

Despite apprenticeships becoming a more popular route for school leavers over recent years, there remain question marks over this pathway from many 16-18-year olds across the UK.

According to a survey of young people by ‘Investors in People’:

  • 53% said they hadn’t even considered doing an apprenticeship
  • 16% said their school or college didn’t provide them with enough information
  • 11% said they had a reputation for being low-skilled pathways

Awareness of apprenticeships has come a long way but more recognition and promotion of these schemes could prompt young people to take apprenticeships seriously.

For example, implementing a UCAS-style format for applying to apprenticeships, which is accessible to everyone. Research from GK & Partners shows that ‘almost two-thirds (63%) of the 1,051 young people interviewed also say that they would be more likely to apply for an apprenticeship if a UCAS-style format was available’.

Benefits and drawbacks of apprenticeships

The benefits of apprenticeships

  • Money: Apprentices earn a salary and don’t obtain student debt.
  • Learning: Apprentices are not only able to put their learning into practice but are also learning and developing important work-related skills such as leadership, communication and analytical thinking.

  • Networking: apprenticeships help students expand their professional network.

Drawbacks of apprenticeships

The nature and design of apprenticeships makes it difficult to pinpoint specific weaknesses. However, two come to mind:

  • Low pay: the belief of 26% young people that apprenticeships are known for providing low pay isn’t completely false. Although a salary is earned by completing an apprenticeship, there may be fluctuations in the amount earned, with salaries depending on the university (for degree apprenticeship) and the employer.
  • Time management: In my personal experience of settling into the apprenticeship, I found time-managementto be a significant challenge. Striking the balance between working, studying and enjoying a social life has been difficult - but not impossible.

Apprenticeships can reduce the skills gap

Ultimately, there is no right or wrong pathway for students to take. It really does depend on what different 18-year olds want to achieve or become in the future

The introduction of T-Levels in September 2020, offering students a mixture of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience, adds another option.

Being a degree apprentice myself, I am utilising the opportunity as a great introduction into the third sector as I successfully balance working culture and formal education.

I view apprenticeships as powerful in shaping the future of education. They can work to reduce the skills gap that our country currently has across various sectors, whilst offering opportunities to those that may be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

With more young people employed by organisations perhaps we could see the next generations of highly skilled, talented workers - and possibly leaders - bring momentous positive change and prosperity to our economy.   

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