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Apprenticeships have a reputation problem – so what can HR do about it?

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Careers advice and guidance in schools is skewed towards university education, so many young people (and their parents) are not aware of other career options and the benefits apprenticeships have to offer.

HR professionals can play a part in raising awareness by volunteering to give career talks at local schools, through programmes such as Inspiring the Future, led by the Education and Employers Taskforce.

But another big problem is that apprenticeships are still associated with blue-collar, manual professions, while many schools and parents aspire for their children to pursue white-collar careers. In reality, there are more than 240 apprenticeship frameworks across the UK, covering most occupations and sectors, from engineering to accountancy, public relations, business administration and even HR. And the introduction of Higher Apprenticeships last year was designed to put apprenticeships on a level pegging with university education. But still not enough employers offer apprenticeships in less traditional professionals and those that do often struggle to attract candidates via this route. This is where HR leaders can really make a difference.

Many businesses today complain about the growing gap between the skills they need and those they see in the existing workforce and in young people entering the labour market. By hiring apprentices, employers can take this matter into their own hands and ensure they get exactly the skills they need while growing a committed, engaged workforce and opening up pathways for new talent into their organisations, occupations and sectors. HR leaders have a role to play in helping business leaders and line managers understand that we cannot expect governments or education systems to churn out off-the shelf, oven-ready employees - we must develop our own workforces by widening the pools from which we recruit and develop people and by creating new and varied career paths.

Apprenticeships are a unique way to grow your own workforce; they combine on-the-job training in your organisation with off-the-job learning. The learning takes place in context and provides a real understanding of the working world, combining practical skills with theoretical knowledge. They thus offer a career route into your organisation and an invaluable opportunity to grow the skills you need now and in the future. Apprenticeships allow your most able workers to pass down their skills and knowledge to new or existing members of staff, keeping your skills in-house and passing them from one generation to the next. Apprenticeships can also be used to further develop your existing workforce, and training an apprentice can provide an accomplished professional with a valuable development opportunity for themselves. In these ways, apprenticeships offer a whole host of benefits in terms of staff retention and engagement.

But, the challenge remains to convince employers in all sectors that apprenticeships are right for their business. HR directors could start by leading by example - the CIPD recently teamed up with Skills CFA to create a framework for a Human Resource Management Higher Apprenticeship, and 20 further-education providers have already signed up to deliver it. If you can prove that apprenticeships are a good way to develop and grow your own team, it may be easier to convince leaders of other functions in your organisation that apprenticeships could be a viable option for them too.

And if that doesn't work, try painting a picture of what the organisation will look like in five or 10 years' time if it doesn't invest now in developing new skills - what proportion of the workforce is nearing retirement? And what skills will those retirees be taking with them? How many of the organisation's products and services will rely on new technologies to meet customer demand? Will you have enough people with the right skills in place to meet that demand in five or 10 years' time?

If these questions don't convince business leaders to rethink apprenticeships, then what will?

Katerina Rüdiger, skills policy adviser at the CIPD