'We still need to sell the benefits of apprenticeships'

Without more information about career opportunities, the number of young people doing apprenticeships will remain low, according to a former chief executive of the National Apprenticeship Service

David Way

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When approaching the development of my new book, I wanted it to look at apprenticeships in the round. I had no specific angle or government brief. It seemed to me that all aspects of apprenticeships were worthy of examination, and there were plenty of people who were experts in their field who were keen to help.

This more expansive and inclusive approach worked. When the commissioned pieces from business leaders, academics, skills experts and HR practitioners arrived, I realised that their individual insights were incredibly valuable – singly and collectively. The joy of reading articles that were so clear, persuasive and insightful will stay with me a very long time.

One important theme that has emerged from the book is the potential role of apprenticeships in helping to achieve greater social mobility. This shouldn’t come as such a surprise when so many chief executives proudly tell you that they used to be apprentices. But there are a number of improvements that need to be made if the potential for social mobility is to be realised.

In my book, Deirdre Hughes, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Research, writes with great clarity about “the urgent imperative for individuals to be guided through an increasingly fast-changing and complex education and labour market landscape”. This seems absolutely critical for both young people and employers.

I see this problem of connecting young people to employers offering great career opportunities from both ends. Unless we can bring greater clarity to the choices young people and their parents make, they will stick with what they know and apprenticeships will remain stubbornly low.

Changing recruitment practices

I also work with a number of industrial sectors, including those that are delivering the multi-billion-pound infrastructure projects. They find it very hard to get across the attractiveness of careers in their sector. It is good to see examples in the book of employers and organisations making progress with this and getting into schools to ensure more young people make better-informed choices.

Social mobility also requires progression at work. Completing the availability of higher apprenticeships and expanding degree apprenticeships is therefore vital and it is good to see this being prioritised by government. Sara Caplan writes about PricewaterhouseCoopers' pioneering experiences in introducing higher apprenticeships and changing its recruitment practices to embrace both graduate and apprenticeship entries. I find that traditional graduate-only recruitment practices are changing for many employers keen to attract the best talent.

While at the National Apprenticeship Service, I tried to get apprentices more involved with the expansion of apprenticeships. Many are inspiring role models for what can be achieved through an apprenticeship. Anyone who has seen apprentices promoting apprenticeships to schools will know what a positive impression they make. Similarly, I often felt that the best way of convincing an employer that they should employ an apprentice was to get them to meet some. “You mean I can get young people like that!” was the usual response.

Overcoming negative perceptions

I was, therefore, delighted when Laura-Jane Rawlings, founder of Youth Employment UK, agreed to write about ensuring 3 million young people would be ready for the apprenticeships that the government and employers plan for them. She makes a strong case for putting the voice of young people at the heart of developing apprenticeships if we want them to choose this particular pathway. She also writes about overcoming current perceptions that young people have of apprenticeships, and about what their expectations are. These, unsurprisingly, include good prospects for progression.

While it may be that future apprenticeships are so good that they sell themselves, we will still need to sell the benefits of apprenticeships for some time to come. Stuart Youngs, executive creative director at Purpose, explains that we need more than intermittent marketing campaigns if we are to achieve a transformation in public attitudes towards apprenticeships. The approach needs to embrace cultural, systemic and behavioural changes, with communications working in tandem with other interventions.

David Way CBE is an author, visiting professor at the University of Winchester, apprenticeship ambassador for learndirect and skills adviser to Energy & Utility Skills

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David Way

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