Anne Milton: Open young people’s eyes to apprenticeships

The minister of state for skills and apprenticeships talked exclusively to HR magazine about overcoming ingrained perception issues around apprenticeship schemes

Despite ongoing talk of graduates struggling to find jobs, the alternative route into the world of work offered by apprenticeships still has a major image problem, according to MP Anne Milton, minister of state for skills and apprenticeships.

Speaking exclusively to HR magazine, Milton said that while the combination of earning while learning should be a compelling prospect for young people, “university has been the default option for kids for a long time”.

Part of the reason for this, she explained, is that many parents still want their children to go to university because it is seen as the best route to landing a good job and a rewarding career.

Milton said there are a number of things that need to happen in society to change these ingrained perception issues around apprenticeship schemes.

“The first thing is opening young people’s eyes, but actually almost more importantly their parents’ eyes, to the fact that there is a valid alternative – and maybe in some instances a better alternative – to an academic education,” she said. “And that is through apprenticeships.”

The second thing, she continued, is a need to persuade people to look at apprenticeships in a different light.

She pointed to the efforts of her team at the Department for Education to promote apprenticeships and enhance their appeal among young people, parents and employers through the Fire it up campaign launched in January 2019. The campaign includes TV and social media advertising aimed at young people, and a dedicated website with useful information like case studies to inspire new apprentices and employers.

“I don’t think there is anything that’s untapped, except for expanding awareness of what an apprenticeship can offer,” said Milton. “We have got all the building blocks in place but we need to build a bigger tower. Our job is to promote apprenticeships and produce the Fire it up adverts, and we have to attack it from lots of different directions.”

However, Milton cited apprenticeship-related careers advice in schools as one area still in need of much attention.

Following criticism that schools provide insufficient information to students about apprenticeships, particularly in comparison to the guidance given on university education, the government launched a new careers strategy in 2018. As part of this schools are encouraged to be more open to different voices and fresh perspectives. “There is a ‘Baker clause’ out there that means training providers have to be allowed into schools to talk to young people about the other opportunities,” said Milton.

When asked about the role of employers in making apprenticeships more desirable, Milton said she is pleased by what she has seen so far. She reported that more employers are showing a commitment not only to embrace apprenticeships within their organisations, but to promoting them more widely and positioning them as an attractive choice.

“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 observed. “It’s quite interesting to see that’s there among kids as well, 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.

“It’s stories from employers and stories from apprentices themselves that are effective. And organisations like the Apprenticeship Diversity Champions Network and the Apprenticeship Ambassador Network are also spreading the word. What government does is facilitate and support those organisations to do it.”

Milton pointed to two specific projects that illustrate the potential of apprenticeships to drive change and inclusion. The first spans five cities and aims to increase the diversity of apprentices. Many people from BAME backgrounds “don’t necessarily think of apprenticeships” as an obvious option for them, she said, urging the need to change this.

The second project focuses on “quite deprived” areas with the objective of getting disadvantaged young people into apprenticeships in “high-value” organisations, where otherwise it might be difficult to pair up the two. “One problem is that some young people would think that, say, KPMG wasn’t for them – that employers like that are out of reach to ‘people like me,’" said Milton

The aim, she said, is that perceived barriers to entry will be swept away as part of a wider process of dismantling outdated misconceptions about apprenticeships.

Milton also shared her perspective on the apprenticeship levy, which has had a mixed reception in the UK since its introduction: “Business was very grumpy about the levy to begin with. Possibly in some quarters they thought that the chancellor might reverse this. I think they were rather hoping that if they moaned enough somebody would say, ‘oh well OK, we’re going to scrap it’. For a lot of employers it was when they realised it was here to stay that they started to make it work.”

While she conceded the system isn’t yet perfect, Milton asserted that the levy has driven employer behaviour in a significant way and that improvements are being made month by month on the back of what’s being learnt.

The reforms of recent years – including the introduction of the levy, the launch of the Institute for Apprenticeships and the creation of standards – are far bigger and deeper than most people anticipated, she argued, meaning it has taken time for results to emerge.

“The companies and public sector organisations that have made it work have embedded apprenticeships into their workforce planning,” said Milton. “It’s not something you can do as an add-on.

“If you are a big employer – for example, most NHS trusts are big employers and of course very aware of the skills shortages they face – embedding apprenticeships into their workforce planning is perfect as it helps grow the skilled workforce. By doing that they are building a future pipeline for more senior jobs within the organisation.”

Further reading

Do apprenticeships need a new look?