Apprenticeship – why firms must stop young people viewing it as a ‘dirty word’

Employers urgently need to dispel the outdated perception that qualifications earned at work are somehow a poor relation to university degrees, argues the manager of Mars UK’s apprenticeship programmes

An employee of Mars working on the chocolate production line

National Apprenticeship Week is upon us again. This annual event, established by the Brown government in 2008, highlights the numerous benefits such programmes can offer both apprentices and their employers. Yet, for many, “the A-word can still be a bit of a dirty word”, says Vikki Marriott, apprenticeship programme manager at Mars.

A 2022 survey of more than 5,000 young people by careers service Prospects found that 60% of students at schools and sixth-form colleges were hoping to attend university, whereas only 12% were interested in pursuing apprenticeships. Of the former group, 40% said they didn’t see an apprenticeship as a viable path into their career of choice, while a similar percentage said they thought that degrees were more respected by employers.

Marriott believes that too many young people “still don’t understand the true value of apprenticeships” – especially the ability to “earn while you learn”. This should have considerably more appeal than the prospect of completing a degree course saddled with a student debt averaging £45,800 in England.

The number of people starting on an apprenticeship scheme in England last academic year (August 2021 to July 2022) was 8.6% up on the previous year’s total. But in Q1 of this academic year (August to October 2022), the number of new starts was 6.1% down on the previous year’s Q1 total.

“There remains a lack of knowledge about what can be achieved through an apprenticeship,” Marriott says. “It has very much been considered as a low-level vocational qualification, with that stigma attached to it.” 

‘There remains a lack of knowledge about what can be achieved through an apprenticeship’

In a bid to change perceptions, some providers have rebadged their offerings. The Marshall Centre in Cambridge, which specialises in training people as maintenance engineers, has become Marshall Skills Academy, for instance, while Rolls-Royce has named its newest apprenticeship training centre the Nuclear Skills Academy.

“Many employers are looking to change the title of some programmes. We’ve seen many skills academies come through,” says Marriott, who believes that providers are becoming “more creative” with the language they use to promote their apprenticeships. 

Mars has so far only explored the idea of repackaging any of its schemes, but the confectionery giant does “champion” them on social media, according to Marriott, who adds: “I’m delighted that we’re able to spread that message.”

New apprenticeship opportunities

Mars has been providing apprenticeships in manufacturing and engineering for decades, but it has recently increased the number of disciplines in which trainees can start their careers. Last year, the company introduced two programmes: one focusing on sales; the other on health and safety. The year before, it piloted an apprenticeship for internal candidates seeking to learn digital skills.

“Apprenticeships are certainly an effective way to meet the evolving skills needs of the business,” Marriott says. “We have a continual supply of talent coming through, as we take in potentially unskilled people and put them through a development programme to help plug any gaps.”

Expanding the range of specialisms available to apprentices also serves the firm’s efforts to become a more inclusive employer. Marriott reports seeing “increased diversity across the business since broadening the portfolio”.

But only a fifth of Mars’s manufacturing and engineering apprentices are women – a proportion she describes as “a lot lower than we’d like”. To remedy this and “make the industry more appealing to the female population”, the company has started collaborating with schools and colleges specialising in STEM subjects.

Age is no barrier

Almost 80% of Mars apprentices stay with the company after graduation, which demonstrates the positive effect that such programmes can have on retention. 

Moreover, a growing number of the firm’s longer-serving employees are taking up apprenticeships to learn new skills. This chimes with the findings of a new survey commissioned by Virgin Media O2, which indicate that 20% of UK workers want to retrain and find better jobs in response to the cost-of-living crisis. Despite this, 47% of respondents said they would avoid apprenticeships because they thought that such qualifications would lead only to temporary roles, while 46% said they thought such schemes were primarily for younger people.

That last statistic highlights another part of the image problem that Marriott is keen to solve. “What I’m really excited about is that our apprenticeships are fully inclusive,” she says. “It‘s not only your typical school- or college-leavers – we‘re seeing applications from a more diverse mix.”

Marriott cites one colleague, aged 59, who has applied for a level-six apprenticeship in digital technology, which is the equivalent of a degree. 

“This offers an added opportunity to develop into a new area. He feels that he may extend his career as a result,” she says.

Equipping older employees to embark on new careers this way is likely to become more important, given the expected increases in the state pension age. Marriott explains that doing so “allows people to refresh their skills. They then feel able to contribute more to the business, which can in turn benefit from the efficiency gains.”