Why companies are still undervaluing apprenticeships

Many UK firms still look down on apprenticeships and vocational learning generally as the poor relations of academic qualifications. What can be done to change this unhelpful view?

“The fact is that people with vocational qualifications are at a disadvantage.” 

That’s the stark verdict of Helen Johnson, head of apprenticeships at the Science and Technology Facilities Council, a government agency that funds research in fields such as nuclear physics and astronomy. 

“Some employers have lost touch with the way vocational qualifications have changed, especially older managers who still view them as they were in, say, the 1970s,” she argues. “They don’t understand the changes.”

Johnson’s assessment is supported by the results of a 2021 Ofqual survey of employers, which found that only 43% felt they had at least a “quite good” understanding of vocational qualifications. A fifth of respondents, comprising mostly smaller employers, admitted to having no understanding at all. 

Preparing people for the workplace

It’s little wonder that, while most providers of vocational qualifications naturally believe that these prepare learners well for the workplace, a considerably smaller proportion of employers (39%) agree.

“Moves to overhaul vocational qualifications in recent years have led to complexity that can be challenging from an employer’s perspective,” says Jude Owens, interim global people operations director at digital advertising platform LoopMe. “There are lots of vocational schemes of differing quality being offered by many providers. That can be a hindrance if you want to hire good-quality talent quickly.” 

She continues: “There’s also the problem that people still recruit in their own image. Those with a traditional academic background perceive someone with a vocational qualification as taking longer than a university graduate to get up to speed. The government and educational institutions could do better in promoting the value of vocational qualifications, so that employers don’t automatically favour candidates with degrees.”

Johnson agrees that “some businesses still have an element of stuffiness in their outlook on vocational qualifications”. As social commentator David Goodhart noted in his 2020 book Head, Hand, Heart: the struggle for dignity and status in the 21st century, different cultures place differing values on vocational training, with some countries – including the UK – maintaining that it’s a poor relation to academic study. 

Research last year by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think-tank found that higher education had received two times more mentions than further education had in the British media over the preceding decade. By contrast, a 2016 Eurostat study indicated that almost half of secondary-school pupils in the EU were going on to take vocational qualifications.

In the US, states have broadly cut funding to vocational training programmes over the past decade, partly because they’re seen as costly to run. Nicholas Wyman, president of the Institute of Workplace Skills Innovation America, believes that “job snobbery” applies widely in his country. This is the fallacy that vocational qualifications exist to equip people for manual work, rather than being relevant to many highly skilled professions.

“It’s born of the misconception that a university qualification is what you need to succeed in life,” he says. “I don’t think employers set out to disadvantage any candidate with a vocational qualification, but many have systems in place that mean they recruit in a certain way that’s hard to change. The task of reassessing the value of vocational qualifications typically requires a champion at director level.”

The European view of apprenticeships

William Clouston is the leader of the UK Social Democratic Party, which is planning to publish an education policy this summer that will encourage the wholesale rebalancing of academic and vocational training.

He agrees with Wyman that employers’ general “lack of respect for vocational qualifications is all about status in the end. Compared with say, German culture, we don’t vilify people for being ignorant in maths, yet we do if they haven’t read the right novels. In the UK there has been a massive over-expansion of university education, while an easy labour supply has disincentivised training and apprenticeships. We need a rebalancing, so that not having a degree doesn’t work against people.”

Offering a Continental perspective from his base in Oslo, Even Bolstad is president of the European Association for People Management, an umbrella organisation covering national HR institutes from 35 countries. He observes that, in thriving industrialised nations with high employment in particular, businesses generally look down on vocational qualifications. 

“That’s problematic, because where they’ll probably lack labour in years to come is in jobs requiring the very skills that people learn when taking these qualifications,” he says. “Employers not opening themselves up to vocational training are, in the longer term, really digging their own graves.”

The government of Australia, for instance, has calculated that its economy will need one million extra workers with vocational qualifications by as soon as next year. 

“Germany is always given as the exception – the go-to example of a country that has got it so right in finding a flexible approach to both vocational and academic education,” Bolstad adds. “But it seems that strong business cultures are generally the most challenged when it comes to changing attitudes.”

Yet there are some positive signs that things may be changing in the UK, at least. While British employers’ appreciation for vocational qualifications is demonstrably shaky, would-be students and their parents are starting to think differently. Among this group, the status of further education has grown relative to that of higher education, according to the SMF research. Just under half (48%) of UK parents said that they would prefer their child to gain a vocational qualification over an academic one. Even those respondents who described themselves as middle class – the traditional wellspring of university graduates – ranked the two options equally on average. 

Does that leave employers behind the curve?

Johnson believes that the economic and commercial uncertainties that lie ahead are prompting firms to see vocational training in a more favourable light. “Considering the future is forcing employers to catch up. They want core skills of adaptability, the ability to learn and so on, precisely because they don’t know what work will look like in the coming years,” she says. 

Bolstad notes that arguments about the respective merits of further and higher education may soon prove moot in any case, given how quickly the world of work is evolving, with the advance of tech such as robotics, big-data analytics and artificial intelligence likely to bring profound disruption.

“Learning will be democratised. It will be shorter, screen-based and ongoing, delivered on a just-in-time basis,” he predicts. “Such is the pace of change that the debate among employers pitting academic qualifications against vocational ones is set to become dramatically less relevant.”

Lights, camera, traction! Apprenticeships in the arts

The creative industries may be one of the UK’s economic success stories, but they certainly aren’t known for their accessibility. For potential entrants, getting on the first rung here has long been a question of knowing the right people and having enough financial backing to enable them to work as interns on little or no pay. Might apprenticeship schemes – as well as the proposed T-levels, due to start from September 2023 – enable these industries to access a whole new pool of talent and shed their elitist reputation?

Such initiatives have had a troubled history – participation in creative apprenticeships fell by one-third over the three years to 2018, for instance. But there are grounds for optimism. For instance, a 2021 review by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IATE) noted that, in a win for social mobility, the theatre sector’s adoption of apprenticeship schemes in recent years had encouraged more people who might not see it as a potential employer to consider the opportunity.

And the IATE – a non-departmental executive body sponsored by the Department for Education – is upping the ante. It has added five creative occupations to the list of jobs that are accessible through technical education and proposed that a further 10 – from milliner to wig maker – be considered.

It has also sought to address long-term factors militating against apprenticeship schemes in the creative industries. One of these is that 80% of employers in the sector tend to be very small businesses with workforces of no more than two people, which would find it hard to take on a full-time apprentice. Consequently, a more flexible creative apprenticeship model, which would enable apprentices to move from project to project and employer to employer, is under consideration. There is £7m of government funding attached to the scheme.

Industry-led skills body ScreenSkills is piloting just such a model. But it has noted that the system remains “so complex” that it is still deterring companies in the creative industries from taking on apprentices.