Apprenticeships could be an irresistible pitch

November 9, 2007

If more teenagers learnt about the benefits of the vocational route, they might quit the university path, argues Terry Watts. Many youngsters take it for granted that they will go to university. But while the academic experience has its benefits, particularly if the course prepares the candidate for a specific career, asking a few simple questions about the future may put apprenticeships on the map for potential students.

Will the choice of degree lead you to a job at the end of it? Will you come away from university with skills that are useful to a potential employer? And is completing a university degree in this way really worth the overdraft you are likely to have built up at the end?

The answers are questionable, maybe specific to each individual, but in many cases they are questions that are not even asked. The system is letting students down, as these are exactly the issues that students should be considering when looking at further and higher education. Without consideration of all the options, students could be making choices for which they are totally unsuited and which do not make the best of their talents and their potential.

Many youngsters are undoubtedly being channelled down a default route of a non-vocational university degree without due consideration of the alternative of apprenticeships, which we believe are potentially a basis for the "world-class skills" aspired to by the Leitch report ( World Class Skills: Implementing the Leitch Review of Skills in England ). For some, apprenticeships don't even appear on their radar.

With David Lammy, the Skills Minister, calling for more apprenticeships to be offered to young people and adults as part of the Government's target of 400,000 apprenticeships for England by 2020, it is time for youngsters - and those advising them - to give them serious consideration.

A non-vocational university degree is not the best route for some of our talented young people, who are getting lost along the way. Full-time university courses are wrong for some young people at 18: these courses are not focused enough on practical skills, they do not necessarily lead to employment and they are not cheap for the individual student in financial terms (university courses cost individual students heavily, which the vast majority of apprenticeships do not). University can equip youngsters with some of the right skills for their working life, but if degrees are non-vocational they don't necessarily go far enough.

We know that large numbers of young people are not benefiting from the academic routes offered in schools, so why do we force them to stay on in academic further education and degree courses?

The vocational route is sometimes considered to be a second-class choice, but apprenticeships are a first-class option for youngsters who want to channel their talents to enhance their employability and raise the bar in terms of skills for the world stage.

There's no doubt that apprenticeships are a winning formula: they can offer similar benefits to an academic route, with progression to foundation and full degrees, earned in the workplace. They are more useful practically for both the employer and the employee, and they are a route to a competent workforce (trained in a way that an employer needs, rather than the theoretical/academic approach of a non-vocational degree course taught in the abstract).

Apprenticeships use qualifications that are developed to fit the occupation; they enable knowledge, skills and experience to be passed down through the country's workforce to future generations (something that is lost for ever in degree courses) and they allow an employee to quickly contribute to an employer's bottom line.

Apprenticeships may not be academically focused like further and higher education, but they are relevant and they are business focused. That does not mean they are any less valuable, or easier. In fact, they are more suited to the challenges businesses face today. Apprenticeship frameworks are regularly reviewed and updated jointly by employers through the Sector Skills Councils, so they are designed to provide a better skilled workforce able to compete in a way that employers appreciate in an increasingly competitive marketplace.

The Leitch report identified a skills deficit that disadvantages the UK to the cost of billions of pounds, highlighting the need for urgent remedies.

Apprenticeships provide economically valuable skills and mean that young people are better placed to help the UK make up this skills deficit and become a world leader in skills by 2020. They give young people control over their destiny, and that of the UK.

They are vital in our mission to be highly skilled and productive, and we must offer all youngsters the option of apprenticeships as well as the traditional further and higher education route to develop their potential. We need to ensure that a long-term solution is applied to the skills gap, not a sticking plaster.

Apprenticeships are giving the UK's skills base a makeover: they mean that apprentices are gaining skills highly relevant to today's modern technological age, the apprentices are enjoying themselves and are earning money at the same time. Apprenticeships are the training of the future, preparing the workforce for the challenges ahead: can non-vocational university degrees really claim that?

Terry Watts is chief executive officer of Proskills UK, the employer-led Sector Skills Council for the Process and Manufacturing Sector.

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