National Apprenticeship Week – why employers should take up the challenge

This week is the second national Apprenticeship Week (February 23-27) – a celebration and advertisement of the fact that there is a recognised and established route for young people keen to train vocationally, rather than carrying on in an academic environment. Without doubt, this is a positive campaign, but there is a question mark over how clear and straightforward the system behind it is.

I would argue that apprenticeships should be truly revered by employers for the value they can bring to a business. However, the waters are currently somewhat muddied with confusing terminology and a range of different kinds of ‘apprenticeships’, making it difficult for employers to buy in, thereby making it harder for young people to gain access to this form of training.

As things stand

So, what is the apprenticeship system like at the moment?

The positive thing is that apprenticeships are increasingly being recognised as a credible qualification by employers, and that careers advice within schools has started, over the last few years, to see them as a worthwhile option for school leavers.

What is more, apprenticeships do still have the well-known and understood meaning of ‘learning from the master’ for many employers – lots of whom did such a qualification in their youth.

However, when employers come to look at actually implementing apprenticeships within their organisation, a problem often occurs – what is being offered is unclear and there seems to be an array of different ‘apprenticeships’ or vocational qualifications available.

The apprenticeship brand has been devalued due to a bewildering choice of apprenticeships, and employers are often too quickly turned off by a confusing system.

Areas for improvement

And yet, within this confusion lies a qualification that can give young people a future and a tangible opportunity for career progression.

So how would I remedy this?

First, we need to show that an apprenticeship is a genuine work-based vocational programme. The introduction of programme-led apprenticeships and young apprenticeships has watered down the message – these are actually vocational courses with a bias towards practical and occupationally related activities, and while there is nothing at all wrong with this, ‘apprenticeship’ is an inaccurate term for this provision and misleading to employers. Calling everything an apprenticeship to make it popular is not the answer – each qualification needs its own identity.

We also need to set apprenticeships up as a qualification for young people – calling someone an apprentice at the age of 30 seems a little odd. Apprenticeships need to be something a young person does to learn a trade, rather than an ongoing training route – this is what NVQs are, quite rightly, for.

The apprenticeship brand needs to be seen in as strong a light as a degree – the vocational alternative rather than as a lesser qualification as some still deem it. An apprenticeship should be a ‘gold standard.’

Apprenticeships should be promoted within the services sector. The UK is no longer the manufacturer it once was and it is now in the services industries that we need to build up a higher skilled UK workforce – young people are looking for recognised qualifications in administration, management, customer service, logistics and so on. Currently, services sector employers are not getting enough exposure for the apprenticeships they are offering.

But will all the above happen? I hope so – employers and young people are benefiting now, but could benefit so much more if the apprenticeship system is tailored to truly fulfil their needs. Whilst I do believe that apprenticeships will regain their position as a gold standard vocational qualification, this will only happen once the system, its value and its end benefits are made clear to employers. And so I would urge organisations to take the time to look beyond the publicity behind Apprenticeship Week, to fight through the confusion and to see the true value that apprenticeships could bring to their business.

Case study: McDonald’s

Following an 80-restaurant trial, McDonald’s is now offering employees across its 1,200 UK restaurants the opportunity to gain a Level 2 apprenticeship in ‘Multi-Skilled Hospitality’. The qualification recognises job-specific skills acquired through workplace training, combined with GCSE-equivalent maths and English.

The restaurant chain aims to provide apprenticeships for up to 6,000 of its 72,000 UK workforce in 2009, and then up to 10,000 per year from 2010.

David Fairhurst, senior vice-president, chief people officer, McDonald’s UK, says: “In these challenging economic times, it is more important than ever for employers to invest in their staff. With the service and hospitality sector now one of the biggest employers in the UK economy – more than 1.9 million people are employed by the hospitality and tourism sector alone – it’s vital that we and others in the industry invest in skills and training now to ensure the sector is ready to shine when the UK emerges from the downturn.”

He adds: “It is not just our people and our business that will benefit. Apprenticeships are also good news for the wider economy. They enable those who use a job at McDonald’s as a stepping stone to another career, to move on to their next job with a valuable, transferable qualification that helps them hit the ground running.”

Employee perspectives

Alix Potts, trainee manager, McDonald’s, Sleaford, Lincolnshire

In 2007, after working at McDonald’s part time for five years, 22-year-old Potts became a full-time employee, and one of the first McDonald’s apprentices. She saw it as a great opportunity to develop in her job and gain the skills needed to progress to being a manager, and especially enjoyed working in the kitchen as part of her training – something she hadn’t had the chance to do before – as it gave her an insight into how things work that she could relate back to her day-to-day work.

To complete the apprenticeship, Potts needed to take her maths and English GCSE-equivalent qualifications through McDonald’s employee lifestyle and learning website Our Lounge ( She had already gained these GCSEs at school, but as part of her apprenticeship she needed to improve her grades.

Potts says “I now see working at McDonald’s as a career rather than a job, and I can’t wait to continue to develop within the company. I enjoyed everything about my apprenticeship and can’t wait to become a fully qualified manager.

“Flexible working and the support of my managers and team mates really motivated me to complete the apprenticeship, and I’m now really keen to encourage other people to do the same. The skills I’ve gained as a result will help me throughout my life, and the fact that my apprenticeship is equivalent to 5 A*-C GCSEs means I’ve now got better qualifications than I left school with.”

Saddam Habib, shift manager, McDonald’s, Reading

Seventeen-year-old Saddam Habib joined McDonald’s in January 2008. After starting out as a crew member, Habib quickly progressed to shift manager.

Having failed to achieve the GCSE grades he hoped for, he left school aged 16. After only a few months in post, Habib enrolled to become one of McDonald’s first apprentices, and his long-term ambition is to become a restaurant manager.

Having successfully completed his apprenticeship, he is now undertaking McDonald’s A-level equivalent shift management qualification.

He says: “It’s always been my ambition to work my way up through the business, and the apprenticeship has allowed me to launch my career in a way I didn’t think possible. It allows you to learn online, in your own time and at your own pace – it’s nothing like being at school.

Now I’ve got a qualification worth 5 A*-C grades at GCSE level, and new doors are open to me, not only at McDonald’s, but at other companies too”

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