It's National Apprenticeship Week! The popular TV programme 'The Apprentice', like it or loathe it, has probably achieved more than any campaign to raise young people's awareness of apprenticeships. The Government is intent this week on raising the profile of apprenticeships and increasing employer commitment to offer high quality, meaningful work-based learning opportunities for all young people. Skills and Enterprise Minister Matthew Hancock is keen to highlight that 'apprenticeships have an important role to play in every sector of the economy. They provide the opportunity for thousands of young people to earn while they learn'.
But is it just a lot of hot air? Apparently not. Recent research has indicated that in their lifetime, qualified apprentices will earn £150,000 more than their peers who do not take the workplace learning route. According to the National Audit Office, for every pound spent on developing an apprentice, eighteen pounds is invested back into the economy. Fairly compelling arguments for the economic and social value of an apprenticeship, and recently supported in a Guardian / BPP Professional Apprenticeships discussion which noted that 'people who come up through the apprenticeship route are more likely to stay in work throughout their life, contribute taxes to boost the economy, be active in their community and live longer'.
But is it really plain sailing for apprenticeships?
First and foremost there's a perception problem. Sociologist Ken Roberts suggests that over the last 40 years there has been 'normalisation' of the concept of a prolonged period of youth, resulting in both parents and employers no longer viewing 16 as a key transition point into working life and employers ceasing to expect to recruit well qualified 16 year olds. Moreover, apprenticeships are viewed as a much poorer alternative to sixth form or higher education. With the majority of schools still measuring success in terms of numbers progressing to university, it is not surprising that apprenticeships are viewed as a poor relation. Despite vigorous promotional campaigns to the contrary, there is still a view that an apprenticeship is a male-dominated 'hands dirty' experience in traditional manufacturing industry with possible exploitation. There are some indications that the tide is turning with an increase of 4% from female applicants to the NAS in the last year, to 47% of total applicants. Effective careers education and guidance for all young people lies at the heart of the solution here. There is absolute imperative for impartial, independent, careers guidance to be readily accessible to all young people at school. Yet we know that despite schools charged with this responsibility since September 2012, provision is patchy. As Nick Clegg himself conceded last week, careers provision is currently falling short with 'too many young people not 'getting what they need' and only 'one in five schools giving all their students detailed careers support'.
Secondly, there's that old chestnut of supply and demand. It's true that the number of apprenticeship vacancies in the UK rose sharply at the start of this academic year: 37,410 vacancies on the National Apprenticeship Service's website between August and October last year, up 24% on the previous year. However, it's also clear that employers are struggling to meet the demand, with 12 applications for every position.
So what is the way forward?
Firstly, we have to address the vocational versus academic perception, and as Mike Cherry, policy officer for the Federation of Small Businesses, asserts: 'We have to make sure that vocational is equal to academic.' Secondly, the Government, whilst acknowledging the importance of developing higher level apprenticeships, now needs to prioritize this agenda as a matter of urgency. More higher-value apprenticeships at levels four to seven have been created in a range of professions, from accountancy to human services: we need even more opportunities for young people to acquire higher level and professional qualifications while earning. As Andy Westwood Chief Executive of the H.E body GuildHE argues, young people should have a genuine opportunity 'to acquire degree level skills (and degrees) and an experience of higher education through work. They should offer a new way of going to university and not an alternative to doing so'.
Effective partnerships between employers and universities are key to success here. Nottingham Trent University has already made excellent progress and is at the forefront of cultivating employer collaboration with a number of employer sponsored degrees, and collaborative academic curriculum initiatives, we now need to step up this work.
Finally, there are compelling social, economic and ethical arguments for all young people to have access to timely, impartial, effective careers information and guidance. This must include guidance and information on all 16-18 education and training options, including Apprenticeships. To do so, would enable them to prosper emotionally, socially and economically and facilitate their effective transition into adulthood. Let's work together to make this a priority, so that in Clegg's own words careers is no longer 'a tick box exercise squeezed into lunchtime break with a busy teacher", but an entitlement for all young people to explore legitimate opportunities guided by a professionally trained adviser.
Senior Lecturer in Guidance and Youth Studies
School of Social Sciences
Nottingham Trent University