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'Apprenticeships shouldn't be seen as second best'

The idea that apprenticeships are a lesser option could not be further from the truth, says Lady Cobham, of the 5% Club

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The idea that apprenticeships are a lesser option could not be further from the truth, says Lady Cobham, of the 5% Club

On-the-job training, absence of student debt, the potential of immediate employment and the foundation for a successful career – sounds an attractive proposition for a young person when starting out in the world of work. In fact, these are all advantages of apprenticeships – structured training programmes which give people the chance to work towards a qualification and earn while you learn.

Yet, as GCSE and A-level results are published in the coming weeks, I wonder how many students will consider taking up an apprenticeship as an alternative to starting a job without any skills training involved, or going to university.

UK businesses are crying out for apprentices in all sectors of the economy. The UK needs millions of new technical and professionally skilled workers in the coming decades, if we are to increase our productivity and compete financially on a global scale. This investment in skills will become even more important post-Brexit.

'Passionate' young people

At The 5% Club, we and our members believe that apprenticeships are a large part of the answer. Bringing on board passionate young people who are going to be trained in a skill, on-the-job, and remain in that career for the foreseeable future, is the key to meeting this need.

From my point of view, this is a win-win situation. The opportunities are there for young people. Apprenticeships are paid; they show employers you can "hit the ground running"; they provide the chance to learn a new skill on-the-job; and they guarantee a career. So why don’t we see more school leavers applying for apprenticeships?

At The 5% Club, we work with more than 300 companies across all sectors and size of business, including construction, engineering, finance and hospitality. They are all committed to offering as many "earn and learn" opportunities as possible. In fact, members of The 5% Club aspire to have 5% of their workforce in on-the-job skills training and development within five years of joining The Club. Yet many of our members still struggle to attract school leavers into apprenticeships. We asked our members, “Why?”

Apprenticeships 'less prestigious'

Their answer was clear. Apprenticeships are still viewed by many as a second best – the "Cinderella" option, for those who are not able to get into university. Plus, young people and their parents are often not aware of how an apprenticeship works and its value to employers. This echoes prime minister Theresa May’s point earlier this year, when she stated: "There remains a perception that going to university is really the only desirable route, while going into training is something for other people’s children.”

Recently, I was shocked to discover, through a survey we conducted, that 80 per cent of parents felt that they didn’t know enough about apprenticeships to be able to advise their children. Moreover, half of them felt that their child’s school failed to provide enough information about apprenticeship routes to a career.

I strongly believe that this view of apprenticeships as "second best" is outdated and must be tackled urgently. We must do more to present all the options available to young people. Technical and vocational pathways today are an equal option to academic routes and are highly respected by employers. The growing membership of The 5% Club is evidence of that.

Apprenticeships 'aren't an easy option'

Schools and careers advisers can play a really important part in helping to remove prejudices and misconceptions when young people are making decisions about their next steps post-GCSE and A-level. A large part of addressing this lies in tackling the assumption that apprenticeships are an easy option. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

New apprenticeship standards place an increased focus on the knowledge, skills and behaviours that the individual undertaking the apprenticeship develops. There are now more than 400 different types of apprenticeships, and so something for everyone. Plus, apprenticeships are available at all levels, including the lesser known degree apprenticeships, which are the equivalent to a traditional full-time university course.

Of course, apprenticeships aren’t going to be right for everyone, but we must strive to achieve a parity of esteem between academic and vocational routes. By doing so, and presenting apprenticeships as a viable option, we can also help to tackle important issues such as youth unemployment and social mobility.

Earn while you learn

Young people from low-income homes are a third more likely to drop out of education at 16, and often don’t know what options are available to them, ending up in low-skilled, low-paid jobs that can be insecure. Paid apprenticeships can present a more stable option to develop skills for a longer-term career, with an individual earning money, whilst they learn.

On a positive note, I feel that the tide is starting to turn for apprenticeships. Young people are looking to avoid student debt, and job security is a major attraction for many. So the popularity and appeal of apprenticeships is rising. We, as passionate advocates, parents, teachers and careers advisers, must continue to give vocational learning the status it deserves if we are to build a generation of workers that will satisfy the needs of our changing economy and build a much broader and more fulfilling way for people to enter the job market.

Lady Cobham CBE is director general of The 5% Club. By joining The 5% Club, businesses aspire to have 5 per cent of their workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions (including apprenticeships) within five years

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