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Apprentices are so much more than plumbers' mates and Lord Sugar acolytes

Written by Frances Dickens on Wednesday, 26 October 2016. Posted in Talent, People

For the sake of our young people and our economy, it's time we all reassess apprenticeships, says Astus CEO Frances Dickens

Apprentices are so much more than plumbers' mates and Lord Sugar acolytes

Regular readers of this column will know that there are some issues that I feel really strongly about. One of my particular passions is banging the drum for routes into the workplace beyond the middle-class Plan A of university. I'm a big fan of the value of apprenticeships – and, as someone who sprung eagerly into the world of work aged 16, I'm very clear on the benefit of this for some young people.

So it was with some sadness earlier this month that I read of a new OECD study that had discovered quite how far the UK is languishing behind the rest of the world on this front. Just 2% of the UK's young people are apprentices, compared with 9% in Denmark and 15% in Germany. 

The report also shone a light on some fairly shocking statistics about literacy and numeracy levels among the young people of the UK. In 2012, the OECD average percentage for poor literacy skills was 10.8% but in the UK 18% of our youngsters were in this category. The picture is mirrored for numeracy: 25.4% of young people had poor numeracy in the UK, compared to a 15.5% average across OECD countries.

Clearly we have work to do as a society in raising the skills levels of the generation about to hit the workplace – and particularly in that transition time between school and work. The report made the point that in the countries that are the best economic performers, young people combine study and work. In Iceland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, for example, half of them do this.

University courses are clearly a great opportunity for some but other young people just don't thrive within educational institutions. Apprenticeships are a valuable way for them to keep learning while directly applying their education to work – and, crucially, earn money.

And apprenticeships don't only make sense for teens not on the uni track. Research shows that many business owners find that their apprentices become their most motivated and productive workers – proving that employing apprentices isn't just altruistic but can deliver real business benefits.

In light of this we need to keep up the pressure on the government, educators and businesses to maintain the support for apprenticeships. A raft of new policy initiatives have been created over the past few years. The apprenticeship levy – a 0.5% tax on companies with a wage bill over £3m – is designed to fund the provision of more apprenticeships, while the new Institute for Apprenticeships will set and assess standards across schemes to enforce quality as well as quantity. Additionally, a voucher system has been introduced to help employers buy in the training components of apprenticeships.

Despite all this good work, my sense is that the biggest block to a greater take-up of apprenticeships in this country is image. Ask many people what the word 'apprentice' conjures up for them and you'll be hearing either about spotty lads trailing after plumbers or cut-throat battles in Lord Sugar’s boardroom.

Now, I love The Apprentice. It’s undoubtedly great entertainment but, like the tradesman’s lad stereotype, it’s not the most accurate reflection of the talent out there. For starters, apprentices are now more likely to be women than men. They are also most likely to be employed within the health and social care sector – 85,000 new apprentices signed up to schemes in that sector in 2014/15, compared to 7,000 plumbing apprenticeships.

Most importantly, apprentices fly. Many have heard that Jamie Oliver was once an apprentice but how about Stella McCartney, who was an apprentice tailor? Or Andy Palmer, the CEO of Aston Martin, who was an apprentice at Automotive Products?

Parents are perhaps the audience it is most important we reach with these messages. Research by Interserve earlier this year found significantly fewer parents would rather their teenage children enter into apprenticeships than universities. They also had a low awareness, for example, of the existence of degree-level apprenticeships. All this despite the pressure of the increasingly eye-watering costs of sending a child to university. And while the government’s GetInGoFar website is making a good go of getting the word out about the value of apprenticeships, it needs more support.

In post-Brexit Britain, we need to be inclusive of all the talents of all of our young people. I hope that over the next few years we see apprentices become an everyday fixture in the workplace. 

About the Author

Frances Dickens

Frances Dickens

EB cover star Dickens set up Astus Group more than 10 years ago and it is now the UK’s biggest media barter company, working with over 200 major brands and almost all media owners. Frances pioneered a new approach to business through Astus, placing accountability, transparency, integrity and delivery on promises as central values. As an experienced entrepreneur, Frances has strong views on good business practice, including issues of sustainability, equality and the role of government in supporting the business community.

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