Apprenticeships make a comeback

Once seen as a last resort for youngsters not cut out for formal education, apprenticeships are now sought after and valued by employers, as Azadeh Khalilizadeh reports

Apprenticeships have changed. From the days of a novice learning his trade at the side of a master craftsman, they have evolved to include high-tech specialised programmes in nuclear physics and high-end training with bespoke designer fashion labels.

They should no longer be considered the poor relation of university study or the last resort for those not cut out for formal education.

Big businesses look to them as key to developing the expertise and skills needed to grow their workforce, improve employee loyalty, and compete in the global marketplace.

The government believes boosting the number of apprenticeships in every sector will redress the national skills shortage and help to turn around the British economy, enabling us to keep pace with the strongest countries in Europe and emerging economies like India and China. 

Record unemployment rates among young people, a near trebling of university fees and uncertainty in the job market have left school-leavers questioning conventional routes into the professions and inquiring about apprenticeships in unprecedented numbers.

For a strong and growing economy, we must have a high level of skills

“Six years ago becoming an apprentice was a choice of last resort for young people and many employers were at best ambivalent,” says Simon Greenleaf, strategy and partnership executive of the London Apprenticeship Company. “These days we receive 350 applications from young people every week.”

The surge in interest is in part down to a concerted effort by government ministers to bolster the image of vocational training and rehabilitate practical learning.

The government has promised to create more than 75,000 new apprenticeship places by 2015. This includes over 20,000 new higher-level apprenticeships which include block release for professional qualifications or university courses, with tuition fees paid.

Financial incentives for small businesses, better guidance, and a reduction in red tape are making it more attractive and viable to set up an apprenticeship scheme. Apprenticeship programmes in the UK grew by a third between 2010 and 2011.

After recent criticism of short-term schemes, stricter rules about minimum training requirements and length of programmes are also making apprenticeships more credible.

“For a strong and growing economy, we must have a high level of skills to meet employer demand and apprenticeships are a vital way of achieving this,” says David Way, chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).

A main catalyst for change has been the expansion of apprenticeship opportunities beyond traditional male metal-bashing trades, such as plumbing and construction.

Pearson in Practice helps companies develop apprenticeship strategies and has seen apprentice numbers growing in a raft of sectors, such as IT, sales, health and social care, logistics, and creative and digital media. Recently, the company developed the UK’s first public relations apprenticeship, which aims to provide young people with a chance to enter an industry heavily dominated by graduates.

The City of Bristol College offers 60 training programmes ranging from horticulture to aeronautical engineering and Skills for Justice are developing a paralegal apprenticeship.

“We are in the 21st century and things have changed,” says Fiona McBride, chief executive of Pearson in Practice. “Modern-day apprenticeship schemes are meeting the demands of today’s industries to serve the future of the UK jobs market.”

But Britain needs to change further before it can compete with other countries in the apprenticeship league. Australia, Germany and Switzerland have twice as many apprentices, per thousand in employment, as England.

“Our problem is more than just filling skills gaps,” says Professor Lorna Unwin, who specialises in change and development of vocational expertise at London’s Institute of Education. “We need employers to invest in developing skills and expertise in the workplace, to grow their own rather than expecting to pick up skilled people off the street or poach them from other companies.”