· Features

The rise of the apprenticeship in white-collar professions

Apprenticeship schemes in white-collar professions have surged in popularity in recent years, and employers can benefit as much as employees.

A university degree used to be something of a prerequisite for starting a successful professional career. But as fees increase and the number of graduate jobs on offer falls, with 85 people competing for every place, university is becoming a less attractive option for ambitious school leavers (university applications have dropped by 7% since higher fees were introduced in 2010).

Instead, apprenticeships in white-collar professions are becoming increasingly popular. Government figures show the number of apprentices in white-collar roles - as opposed to traditional manual and vocational training - has surged. Last year, 44,980 were in management apprenticeships, as opposed to 880 from 2003 to 2004.

Anyone faced with the task of convincing employers and school leavers apprenticeships are good news could consider this: trainees could qualify a year earlier than their graduate counterparts by following formal on-the-job training - and without the whopping university debt to boot. "The fact you can get to a really high level in a career through apprenticeship, enjoy the same career opportunities and achieve the same qualifications as if you had gone to university, but potentially a year earlier is a really positive message for people who might not want to go to university for whatever reason," says Sara Caplan, a partner at PwC responsible for developing higher apprenticeships within the firm.

Caplan should know. When PwC couldn't find the right fit within existing schemes, it decided to team up with other employers, including Accenture and Mott MacDonald, to design a new professional services higher apprenticeship. This established a nationally recognised route for school leavers into careers in audit, tax and consulting.

This year, PwC took 65 school leavers on to its higher apprenticeship scheme and plans to take another 120 in September, when it will also launch a follow-on apprenticeship leading to chartered accountant status.

The introduction of higher apprenticeships last year, with a mix of on- and off-the-job learning, intended to put formal training on a par with university education. About 250 employers have developed 19,000 new higher apprenticeships, not only in technical industries but also insurance, business and financial services. A second round of bids last year supported the development of more apprenticeships in sectors such as legal services and low carbon engineering. And some higher apprenticeships incorporate 'softer' sectors, including HR and even social media for business.

The more higher apprentices there are, the more they will be recognised by business, says Caplan, and the benefits of the qualification will increase.

But targeting quality school leavers isn't straightforward. Any sixth-former armed with grades is often under intense pressure from parents, schools or colleges to enter higher education.

"Schools still think an apprenticeship is something you do when you can't get into university," says Patrick Philpott, who this autumn is launching Visionpath Education - a platform for matching potential apprenticeships with employers. "Companies say the big issue they have is that the education system doesn't know about apprenticeships," he adds.

School leavers who do take up apprenticeships tend to be exceptionally driven, employers say. "Many [higher apprentices] have overcome peer and parent pressure and are incredibly motivated and enthusiastic," says Caplan. "They want to prove it's a good thing to do." And while salaries are competitive - with some companies offering as much as £18,000 to £19,000 - expectations from school leavers are lower. "Graduates often expect top salaries, whereas apprentices are excited to be paid to learn," says John McGlinchey, senior vice president of global business development at CompTIA - the global IT trade association that works with the IT industry to train apprentices.

Some companies build links with local schools and career advisers, sometimes through professional bodies. Accounting firm BDO, which began recruiting school leavers in 2005, used to recruit nine graduates for every school leaver. Now the firm recruits three for every seven, and aims eventually to equalise numbers.

"The opportunity to work towards a globally recognised qualification as a chartered accountant is a key driver for our school leaver trainees," says Greg Owens, BDO's director of technical training and professional qualifications.

When interviewing and assessing, companies make allowances for the fact that school leavers have less life experience. But they still demand similar competencies. BDO asks for the same amount of UCAS points (280) as it does for graduate trainees.

"Our assessment centres run on similar lines and measure potential on the same competency model irrespective of whether a candidate has a degree or not," says Owens. Apprenticeships allow companies to cast the net far wider than the existing graduate model, he adds: "One of our key drivers as a firm has been about looking for a wider range of potential talent to enter the profession."

In the past, smaller companies might have been put off apprenticeships by reams of accompanying paperwork, but fortunately the system has since been simplified. A company can contact the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) for help in finding a training provider, which could be an affiliated university, a recognised industry body or a commercial entity, as in the case of PwC. Alternatively a company can opt to create its own apprenticeship scheme and apply for endorsement from an examining body. Higher apprenticeships usually last two years with an option to break contract should the candidate not pass exams.

Should HR departments struggle to sell the appeal of apprenticeship schemes within the company, the NAS provides a host of data, including research into return on investment.

Not only are apprentices proven to improve the bottom line, they also feel like a natural fit for the knowledge economy, offering a structured framework for current staff to pass on expertise to the next generation. They're also a response to perennial complaints about skill shortages among graduates.

"Although it requires a bit of work upfront, you get to train the apprentice in the skills your business needs," says McGlinchey. "This can be very attractive compared to a more expensive graduate who has spent three years learning what someone else - often someone who has never worked in business - has decided they should learn."

Pilot scheme Employer Ownership of Skills, which was successfully trialled this year, makes apprenticeships more accessible for smaller companies. They can identify the skills their workforce needs and request Government funding to go to a training provider they have chosen.

"It's about putting employers in the driving seat, to get control and get what best fits their staff," says Caplan. And companies with fewer than 1,000 staff receive a grant of £1,500 (£3,000 within London) for every apprentice hired, to a maximum of 10. As of August, only apprenticeships for those aged 16-18 will be fully funded. The Government will provide partial funding for apprentices aged between 19-23.

Where school leavers schemes have already existed within a company, setting up a formal apprenticeship scheme is relatively straightforward as managers are switched on to the benefits and also the nuts and bolts of training young employees. Consulting apprentices at PwC rotate departments every eight months, and take an afternoon out each week for study towards professional qualifications. Within six weeks of joining they may face their first exams. They integrate well with graduates, says Caplan, and are well supported with a 'buddy' scheme. "It's quite intense, particularly for those adjusting from school life, but everyone recognises they are at a slightly different stage from graduates and helps them get through that," she says.

Most difficult, says Owens, was managing the expectations of counselling managers, the company and apprentices. Improved communications with everyone involved will overcome this, he says.

Treat apprentices as you would graduate counterparts, says Robert Bowyer, director at Venn Group, which has taken on a handful of apprentices in the past three years within its 300-strong staff, some aiming for higher apprenticeships.

"We don't see it as running two schemes - graduate or school leaver," he says. "Our criteria are more about the type of person. We will embed them and give them ultimately the same opportunities."

Key to setting up an apprenticeship scheme is to have a clear picture of what you want from them. "That's why we designed our own," says Caplan. "We realised there wasn't the right fit for us, but the NAS can help you find that." Accountancy firms relished the collaborative side of forging a framework for school leavers.

"Although we're normally competitors in respect of client work and also talent, the collaboration made this scheme employer-friendly and relevant," says Owens.

Structure, formal qualifications, support and understanding the adjustment school leavers are making are essential ingredients for successful higher-level apprenticeships, say employers. With minimal work experience, 18-year-olds might find office hours and pace of business a shock, but tend to adjust quickly.

"And being in work, they mature really quickly, begin to manage their own money and get a feeling of independence," says Caplan. "The fact employers are starting to value apprentices as much as graduates sends a really positive message."