Do apprenticeships need a new look?

Apprenticeships could do with a makeover to better attract candidates

Despite a huge amount of change around apprenticeships in recent years the earn-while-you-learn career pathway is still dogged by something of an image problem. Negative perceptions are proving stubbornly hard to shift and present a challenge for employers looking to attract talented candidates onto their programmes.

But employers aren’t alone in their frustrations. In an age when university education is beset with reputation issues of its own, prospective apprentices are somewhat dispassionate about their options. Meanwhile this is having implications on society more widely given the growing need to develop a highly-skilled workforce post-Brexit. It’s fair to say, then, that some kind of makeover of apprenticeships should be on the cards.

Much of the image problem is to do with the long-standing (and perhaps unfair) perception that apprenticeships are only for entry-level roles and particular types of work.

Further reading

Apprenticeship starts rise

Is it time to reform the apprenticeship levy?

Single parents frozen out of apprenticeships

Degree apprenticeships boosting D&I

Entrenched ideas that apprenticeships are traditionally based on manual trades “create an instant barrier” when recruiting new people, or when trying to attract colleagues internally to join apprenticeships schemes, explains Louise Powell, head of education and learning at Travis Perkins. She says it’s also a challenge for businesses to attract school leavers into apprenticeships because of the “common perception” that apprenticeships are a step down from university.

But dispelling these myths is a more mammoth task than businesses can contend with alone, feels Powell. She feels schools currently offer little career advice to change these perceptions, something the government has a responsibility to step in and facilitate, she says.

“We believe it is important for the government to align its external messaging around the purpose of apprenticeships, and provide clarity as to whether apprenticeships are there to close the skills gap between the UK and other major economies and drive social mobility. Or if they are there simply to get school leavers into work,” says Powell.

It’s something Anne Milton, minister of state for apprenticeships and skills, says the government recognises. She points to a new careers strategy that aims to address shortcomings in how apprenticeships are promoted in schools – by encouraging training providers to come into secondary schools and paint an up-to-date picture of what’s on offer, for example.

More broadly on the question of a makeover, Milton highlights the ‘Fire It Up’ campaign launched at the beginning of the year to promote apprenticeships among young people, parents and employers. A key strand of the campaign – which features high-profile TV and social media advertising – has involved leading employers waking up to the benefits of new higher-quality programmes.

While the government and education system are key to creating this new image, Milton asserts that employers also have an important role to play in conveying positive messages.

“A lot of employers are doing more now to change the perception and that’s very important as there is a lot of intellectual snobbery around,” she says. “It’s quite interesting that’s there among kids as well [as their parents] to some extent.

“But when you have people like KPMG, Google, Microsoft, Deloitte, and JLR out there talking about apprenticeships then people start to think about it in a different way. University is still right for some routes, but there are so many things you can achieve if you want a degree by doing a degree apprenticeship”.

At Direct Line Group apprenticeships are available to both new and existing employees. It currently has 285 apprentices in learning across 13 business areas, funded by the apprenticeship levy or the Scottish funding model. However, Direct Line’s head of HR operations Jason Gowlett believes there’s still more work to be done to win over the sceptics.

“The name ‘apprentice’ doesn’t help, especially when trying to encourage higher education or degree apprenticeships to join your organisation,” he says. “The name still has a stigma attached and we have found that the higher the qualification the worse the stigma seems to be.”

The label does cause some problems, agrees Powell. “[But] the word apprenticeship has French origins and means ‘someone learning’ so in that sense it couldn’t be more appropriate,” she says. “However, changing perceptions does take time.”

Gowlett believes that making the career pathway clearer for an individual and highlighting the benefits for everyone, not just school leavers, would make an apprenticeship more attractive for many. This, he feels, would also help attract existing staff or people who may be looking to change their career path.

For Peter Kay, head of learning and development at Tarmac, celebrating the success stories of colleagues who joined as apprentices is key to selling the benefits and opportunities of various schemes. Leadership advocates are particularly powerful, he says, giving the example of a Tarmac SVP who is a former apprentice and so offers “a great example” to current and potential recruits.

“It’s also important for business to tackle the misconceptions that apprenticeships are just for young people and demonstrate the wide range of opportunities for all ages,” says Kay. “Apprenticeship qualifications and courses for employees who have been in the business for a number of years are being referred to as learning and development opportunities to avoid unconscious bias, and we’re upskilling colleagues in both practical and managerial roles every day through the apprenticeship standards, which provide them with new skills.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Lloyds Banking Group culture and best team director Michelle Blayney, who says the bank is “working hard internally and externally to break down the myth surrounding apprenticeships and offer our programmes to school leavers, graduates, new recruits and our existing employees”.

However, for some the branding of apprenticeships isn’t the main issue. Caspar Bartington, education manager at the Association for Project Management, believes the multiple changes to apprenticeships (including changes to funding levels) are more problematic because of the uncertainty they create for businesses.

“We need to let high-quality apprenticeships grow without interference,” says Bartington. “Also the SME market has been a tremendous supporter of apprenticeships in the past and we need to make it easier for them to engage with the programme.”

To some extent it’s not just prospective employees struggling to feel some attraction to apprenticeship schemes; they also have an image problem among employers themselves. Recent research undertaken by training provider JTL showed a marked reluctance among many small businesses to take the leap and employ their first apprentice. But once they have done their misgivings fall away rapidly, the research found.

Cathie Foster, head of marketing and communications at JTL, says her company is “constantly campaigning” to encourage businesses of all sizes to take on apprentices – to provide the additional manpower they need as their businesses grow.

Part of the uncertainty among employers, says Kirsty Bannerman, early career development manager at Cushman & Wakefield, comes from the fact some suppliers may not be fully in sync with what employers need.

“Providers should not rush to get onto the register of training providers without fully understanding the requirements,” says Bannerman. “A negative experience for an apprentice or an employer hiring apprentices will exacerbate the issues already surrounding them.”

Clearly there’s much to do to give apprenticeships the revamp they so desperately need.

For some a collaborative approach is the answer. Fiona Hawkesley, national accounts director at provider Remit Training, believes there’s room for further nationally-recognised initiatives that training providers, employers and colleges could be a part of, to deliver a strong message around apprenticeships throughout the year.

“A lot of the initiatives out there centre around key points in the year, such as National Apprenticeship Week and National Careers Week – both of which fall at the same time, which doesn’t completely add up in terms of ensuring that there is a strong voice advocating apprenticeships throughout the year.”

So it seems apprenticeships will need a makeover at business level, government level and grass-roots level if they are to get a brand new face.

Check back tomorrow to read an exclusive interview with Anne Milton, minister of state for apprenticeships and skills

This piece appeared in the April 2019 issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk