‘Apprenticeships are in the spotlight – let’s make sure they remain there’

Disregard the latest fashions that you may have seen on the catwalk during London Fashion week. Apprenticeshipsare ‘the new black’. Everyone who is anyone is fighting to prove their expertise on the topic. 

Just this month there have been a plethora of announcements from political parties and organisations, including mine, on the positive benefits of apprenticeships. 

However, just a few years back, apprenticeships were the Cinderella of education. They were wrongly deemed to be a secondary option to university. Back then, the path to a well paid and fulfilling career was clearly mapped out as: do A-levels, then a degree and then get a job. 

In response, parents and teachers, concerned with the growing trend of professions demanding a degree for even entry-level roles, determined that the best path to a career was going to university. This meant that some young people found themselves effectively herded off to university with not enough thought as to whether this was the right option for them. 


You were only advised to do an apprenticeship when you were thought of as not being “bright” or “bookish” enough to do A-levels. The view of apprenticeships being inferior to A-levels was thus reinforced, as those who did them tended to have not achieved the requisite grades to study much else. 

After the worst recession in living memory, this way of thinking has been turned on its head. Graduates who had packed themselves off to university with a student loan in their bank account, found themselves fighting for, and in many cases losing out on roles that they could have walked into without a degree. 

Latest ONS figures show that almost half of graduates are in roles that do not require a degree. Coupled with this are the repeated concerns the business community voice that some graduates do not have the skills required to their job. This has led many to question whether the degree route is worthwhile. 

Research from the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) has found that apprenticeships contributed £1.8 billion to the economy in 2013 and the CEBR project that, by 2050, apprenticeships will contribute over £100 billion. 

For a country that needs to fan alight the embers of economic recovery, it makes good business sense to put as much effort as possible into stimulating the growth of apprenticeships. 

There is still scope to build on what has been achieved. Funding for many skills could and should be owned regionally, ensuring that local labour skills match the demands of the local job market. Whilst apprenticeships are increasingly becoming a success story, geographical coverage is uneven and employer incentives lean toward a one-size-fits-all basis. 

Regions and cities should play a role in determining where funding for skills should go. They are better placed to know what skills shortages there are and can implement a targeted approach to tackle it. Of course this will require much closer collaboration between businesses, training providers and local government. 

In addition there is a question of what businesses, as employers, can contribute. The National Apprenticeship Service reported that there has been a 32 per cent rise in applications for apprenticeships. A perfect example of this is Marks & Spencer, who last year had 3,000 applications for its 30 apprenticeships – that’s 100 applicants per place. 

Whilst no company may ever be able to create enough roles for every interested candidate, it is good to see all political parties now considering how they can help improve, where feasible, the number of apprenticeship places that are created. 

This should hopefully help to alleviate somewhat the issue of demand outstripping supply. 

But better careers advice is also required, and it is good to see the Government will be creating a new careers company for schools, to transform the provision of careers education and advice for young people. 

However, we must also remember that others, notably parents, will influence the decisions young people make. They too need to have access to the latest information. AAT research has found parents play a fundamental role in influencing a person’s career path, but they can still be influenced by their own experiences of apprenticeships, limiting young people’s awareness of their options. 

If we are all serious about increasing the number of people who undertake an apprenticeship it will require everyone to pull together across all these different aspects of skills development. Apprenticeships can then move beyond fashion to become a British classic. 

Mark Farrar, chief executive of AAT


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