Are apprenticeships really the answer?

Apprenticeships are increasingly being presented as the solution to the UK’s youth unemployment and skills shortfall, but is it really that simple? Emma Parry asks whether or not apprenticeships really are a cure for the nation’s employment problems.

We know that UK prosperity is dependent on the employment and level of skills and experience possessed by our workforce. This means it is essential that we address the current difficulties with youth unemployment and skills levels in order to improve the UK’s economic performance, as well as to allow our organisations to be competitive and to promote financial and personal wellbeing for individuals.

Employing young people: an ABC guide to recruitment and development – free webinar

Employing young people: an ABC guide to recruitment and development - free webinar

Personnel Today’s webinar, in association with Learndirect, discusses how apprenticeships are helping employers recruit and develop their staff. Watch the on-demand version »

Apprenticeships provide a potential answer to these problems, by allowing young people to gain experience and qualifications while at the same time earning a wage and helping employers to develop a talent pipeline for the future. But do apprenticeships really represent the solution to unemployment and low skills levels in young people?

Mixed view

On the one hand, recent research I have conducted in conjunction with Learndirect has supported the benefits of apprenticeships for employers by helping companies fill skills shortages, grow their business and have a positive impact on employee retention.

On the other hand, our research also showed that some employers perceive there to be a number of drawbacks to apprenticeships – the cost, the time taken to train the apprentice and a lack of suitable applicants. Around one-third of our employers also thought a lack of commitment from both employers and potential apprentices would prevent the successful growth of apprenticeships in the UK.

This research, and indeed past research, suggests that employers’ experiences of and belief in apprenticeships are more mixed than Personnel Today’s recent webinar (see box, right) on the topic might have suggested.

The attitudes of both employers and potential apprentices are key to the success of apprenticeships in addressing youth skills and employment. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) this year has suggested that apprenticeships are still viewed as inferior to a university degree, despite recent concerns about the costs and quality of a higher education.

The general status of apprenticeships needs to be improved if young people and employers are going to see them as a real alternative to a university education, as they are in much of western Europe. This can only be achieved through a large-scale campaign to raise the awareness and profile of apprenticeships and apprentices within the UK, and through working with schools and careers advisers to ensure that young people are encouraged to view joining an apprenticeship scheme as a positive move in their careers.

Longer-term approach to managing talent

We also need to encourage employers to take a longer-term approach to talent management and development. In my experience, many employers still prefer to recruit ready-trained employees. In fact, a short-term approach to managing talent has increased since the economic downturn with many employers reluctant to invest in the long-term development of their workforce.

There has been much talk over the past 15 years of creating a learning or talent management mindset within organisations. This is still an aspiration for most organisations who tend to turn to training and development to address immediate rather than future needs.

However, we know that it is those organisations that do make long-term investments in their staff and create the talent pipelines that survive recessions and obtain long-term competitive advantage. Because of this, I would urge more employers to take the steps to create a learning mindset within their organisation and to invest in the continuous development of their workforce so that they can be certain to have the skills that they need in the future.

Not just for the young

This leads me to my final question: why the focus only on young people? Yes, it is important to address skills deficits in this group and to facilitate their successful transition into employment. However, skills development and career management should not only be about younger people. With an ageing workforce and the average life expectancy increasing, we need to pay attention to individuals at all stages of their careers.

We also need to train those whose existing skills are becoming obsolete, who want to be promoted or to change careers entirely. The skills deficit within the UK is not just about up-skilling young people and tackling youth unemployment, but about re-skilling employees throughout their careers, so that they can not only make that initial transition into employment, but also so that they can move onwards and upwards within and across organisations, move into new careers, perhaps start their own businesses and eventually enter retirement. It is only by addressing life-long learning that we can really begin to tackle the skills issues within the UK and facilitate the success of both organisations and individuals.

So, in answer to my question: are apprenticeships really the answer? Yes, they might be for some individuals and for some organisations. However, they are only the answer to part of the problem. A broader change in attitudes towards learning and development at any point in an individual’s career is needed.

Dr Emma Parry is a reader in human resource management at Cranfield School of Management

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