Career pathways for school-leavers

As university tuition fees rise and undergraduate applications fall, employers are looking to school sixth forms for bright talent. Liz Lightfoot reports

The hunt for the brightest and best students is an annual ritual on the university campus milk round. But now some of the biggest graduate recruiters are turning their heads in a different direction.

Afraid that some of the talented young people they want to attract may be deterred from higher education by the near trebling of tuition fees, companies are thinking more carefully about school leavers.

Hundreds of new job and training opportunities are being offered to sixth formers from September as an alternative to full-time university courses. They are the new higher-level apprenticeships that are being launched with government backing and extend beyond the usual vocational areas.

More than 20,000 new apprenticeships are expected over the next two years in industries from high-tech engineering to fashion. In a new development, firms offering professional services – traditionally the biggest graduate recruiters – are drawing up schemes for higher-level apprenticeships in the very areas most sought after by graduates – banking, marketing, IT and consultancy.

Higher-level apprenticeships last between three and four years, and offer a living wage, on-the-job training and block release for professional qualifications or university courses, with tuition fees paid.

Their introduction is timely. Surveys show sixth formers are nervous about the rise in university fees to £9,000 a year for most courses and undergraduate applications are down this year by 9 per cent for UK applicants.

Apprenticeships are “a pretty hot topic” among graduate employers, says Martin Birchall, managing director of High Fliers, a leading researcher into graduate recruitment.

It is very important that we cast our net wide and get people who are a little bit different

Though the number of apprenticeships will be relatively small compared to graduate jobs this year, employers are aware that some quality school leavers may see them as an alternative to university and they do not want to lose that talent. The test is whether these apprentices will have the same career opportunities as graduates.

“In terms of overall career progression, will these apprentices take longer to get to the same stage as graduate recruits or will it will be neck and neck?” Mr Birchall asks. “This is the sort of appraisal that young people will be doing, but I am not sure employers have mapped it out yet.”

Unlike the ill-fated vocational diplomas brought in as an alternative to A Levels, the new apprenticeships have not been left to quangos and civil servants to devise. Instead the government has passed the baton to business and industry, and the early signs are that they have hold of it.

Big graduate employers such as PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Unilever, Aviva and Aon are helping to draw up apprenticeship models that will be equal in status to the first two years of an undergraduate degree. To be approved, they must include industry-recognised qualifications, some being drawn up from scratch. Smaller employers around the country without the resources to devise, market and organise their own schemes will be able to use these frameworks plus the marketing and recruitment tools.

PwC, voted graduate employer of the year for nine consecutive years in the High Fliers student survey, is taking a leading role in originating frameworks for apprenticeships in audit, tax and management consultancy. The firm will be building on its popular school and college-leaver scheme that has been running for ten years, and has seen a 300 per cent increase in applications over the last three years.

Michael Rendell, a non-graduate who made it to PwC partner in just five years, says companies need a diverse range of talent. “It is very important that we cast our net wide and get people who are a little bit different, with different skills and experience, and you are not going to get that if you always go to the same place,” he says.

Mr Rendell, who left school at 16 and became a tax collector, says non-graduates have the same opportunity as graduates to build their skills and excel. “You can move forward very quickly as long as you have the basic abilities to be developed. The fact you come in without a degree doesn’t mean you will move any less fast up the career ladder,” he says.

In the banking sector, HSBC is running its own advanced apprenticeships at A-Level standard, and is working with Lloyds Bank and the Financial Skills Partnership – the skills council for financial services – to draw up a model for higher-level apprenticeships in retail banking and commercial relationships.

Aviva, the world’s sixth largest insurance company, is also launching an apprentice programme. Aimed at high-achieving 18 year olds with 300 UCAS points or the equivalent, it will complement the company’s graduate entry scheme that has grown from five graduates joining in 2009 to 55 this year. In 2012 Aviva plans to offer opportunities for school or college-leavers in their underwriting, IT and marketing functions.

“It will help us bring new talent into the company and, by creating jobs specifically aimed at school and college-leavers, we are also making a positive contribution in respect of the wider issues of the economy and youth unemployment,” says Kate Erskine, Aviva’s head of recruitment.

The new apprentices will start on £14,500, not including London waiting, plus a £500 starting bonus. Within three or four years they will be earning the same salaries as graduate recruits – around £23,500 – and be more professionally qualified, she says.

It is not just the big graduate recruiters climbing on board. High-Tech Engineering in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, wants to use the new framework to expand its popular in-house training schemes that provide highly skilled engineers for the motoring and aerospace industries, including Formula One.

For those in less glamorous sectors, such as transport, it is a chance to attract talent. Logistics – moving things from one place to another – has an image problem, says Andrew McDonald, head of talent for TNT. “Too often it is seen as working in a warehouse or on the road, and we do not always get the brightest and the best wanting to work here,” he says. “We are relied upon for anything from transporting pandas from China, moving racing cars, blood or organs, to issuing and delivering bank pin numbers. There are a myriad of opportunities in IT, finance, customer service, sales – to name but a few.

“The change in the higher education landscape is an opportunity for the industry to offer a real alternative to university.”

Research by Aviva last year showed school-leavers wanted jobs with prospects, but also the opportunity to gain recognised qualifications. There is clearly the will among companies to change their recruitment practice. It remains to be seen whether students are willing to make their career choices earlier and forego the student lifestyle.


Gap-year gamble paid off

A chance conversation with a family friend about apprenticeships at Unilever led Emma Brown to change her career path. At the time she was on a gap year with a confirmed place to study chemistry at the University of Sheffield, with her student loans in place.

“I heard that Unilever were starting apprenticeships and I thought I had nothing to lose by applying. I ended up getting the job, so I gave up my place at university. I was worried about having to borrow about £6,000 a year and ending up in debt with no guarantee of a job afterwards,” says Emma, 21, from Chester.

Now in her second year of the four-year apprenticeship scheme started by the multinational consumer goods company in 2010, Emma says she feels “incredibly lucky”.  She moves around to get experience of different departments and has worked on hair products and washing powders while studying part-time for a chemistry degree at the University of Liverpool. Starting salaries range from £10,500 to £14,500, depending on the apprentice programme and location.

“All the fees are paid for me and I am surrounded at work by people with chemistry degrees willing to help me if I get stuck on anything at university. I don’t feel I have missed out on the social aspect of university because I have made many work friends from all over the world,” she says.

Schools push sixth-form students into going to university as the only option, Emma says. “This kind of apprenticeship needs to be put at the forefront in schools, so people know you don’t have to go to university to get a good job.”


Learning on the job figures

At the age of 18, Jonny Nixon was meeting clients with billions of pounds on their financial statements and helping them to track down risk.

Jonny was an A-star student at school but, while his friends went off to university, he was one of the first intake to KPMG’s school-leavers scheme that started last September. The number of places has risen from 100 to 150 this year to meet a surge in demand from sixth formers looking to train on the job.

He had intended to study accountancy at Queen’s University, Belfast, when he read about the KPMG scheme. Now 19, he is working at the company’s prestigious Canary Wharf headquarters in London and studying on block release at the University of Durham.

At the end of the six-year scheme he will have an accountancy degree and the professional exams to be a qualified accountant. “I am loving it,” he says. “I am being given challenging and interesting work, and learning a lot from people who have been in the industry for years. I still get 14 months at university with all fees paid and a salary of over £20,000.”

Jonny’s results from school meant he could have had his pick of university courses, but he has no regrets. “When I look at my friends at university, they are getting fewer lectures and five months off a year, whereas I am learning a lot in a short space of time and I’m able to save up. Hopefully, I will be able to buy a house when I qualify.”