The past few years have seen a debate open up over the value of degrees as a stepping stone to a career, a debate which will have a significant impact on HR managers and their recruitment policies.
The economic downturn has squeezed the number of graduate positions, leaving increasing numbers of university leavers unemployed and saddled with heightened expectations, increased debt and reduced opportunities. To add to their woes, business leaders such as Sir Terry Leahy and David Frost have questioned graduates' work-readiness.
As large numbers of young people are discovering, having a degree does not necessarily unlock the door to a "graduate" career. The Association of Accounting Technicians' recent research shows that 55% of this summer's university leavers will face unemployment or go into low-skilled jobs that they could just as easily have got straight out of school. This high level of unemployment and "under-employment" is caused by a combination of a lack of available jobs and a lack of suitability for the jobs that are available.
For a long time, employers in white-collar careers - for example media, IT, law, finance - have believed that a university degree is the first part of the application process for new recruits. However, it is increasingly hard to identify talent and increasingly difficult for employers to work out the value of a particular degree to their organisation.
Clare Morley, director of education and training, Association of Accounting Technicians.
There has been a generational shift in these white-collar professions - whereas 20 years ago a journalist could enter the media through a hands-on apprenticeship, now degrees are often considered a prerequisite. But HR managers need to question whether or not this approach is bringing diversity, talent and energy into the organisation. Just as students are starting to question the return on investment on degrees, so businesses must question whether or not they can justify investing so much in graduate schemes when a great many talented potential employees will soon fall outside the graduate category. We should be working towards a system of education and training that focuses on the quality of the skills and the work-readiness of the candidate, not the path chosen to achieve it.
It is this quest for quality that is driving businesses towards apprenticeships. Although apprenticeships are traditionally viewed as the path to a blue-collar career, the Government has pledged the creation of 400,000 per year during 2014 and 2015, with backing for a greater number of white-collar apprenticeships.
The accountancy sector has been at the forefront of this approach, with finance departments in many public and private sector organisations offering apprenticeships. This route attracts some of the brightest school-leavers, providing businesses with a skills stream for the long term. Businesses have found that apprenticeship schemes are frequently more cost-effective than graduate programmes, reducing salary overheads as well as recruitment and retention costs.
A good example of this approach in action is the finance division of Procter & Gamble (P&G). In cutting its graduate scheme altogether, P&G focused instead on putting school-leavers though high-quality vocational training. The apprentices appreciate both the investment that has been made in them and the opportunity that they have been given, making them among the most motivated employees around.
By opening up alternative routes into professions, we will see the talent pool deepen. It also offers the next generation an alternative to university and associated debt, as a way into careers they crave.
By introducing an element of competition, institutions awarding qualifications will have to work harder, showing that there is a real return on investment from taking their courses. This is as equally true of vocational as it is of academic courses - bad quality qualifications need to be rooted out, as they waste young peoples' talent and money while muddying the waters for employers.
By developing routes into white-collar careers, focusing on the quality of the skills rather than the route through which it was attained, savvy professions and employers can develop alternative recruitment and training paths. By doing this, they can benefit from a more blended approach that brings through the best people from both academic and vocational routes. In the long term, this is the only logical approach for white-collar careers to develop and nurture high-quality talent.
Clare Morley, director of education and training, Association of Accounting Technicians