“White collar” apprenticeships challenge traditional graduate recruitment

White collar apprenticeships

The apprenticeship route into the workplace is increasingly being adopted in industries you might not associate with apprentices. Jo Faragher looks at how apprenticeships are challenging the educational and recruitment norms in the “white collar” sectors.

The legal sector has not traditionally been associated with apprenticeships. It is notoriously hard to break into, with graduates fighting for training contract places every year. It is about as far away from a long-held perception of apprenticeships – that you learn craft skills from an experienced mentor or “master” – as it is possible to get.

However, the partners at top 50 national law firm Weightmans would be inclined to disagree, having taken on the UK’s first ever legal services apprentices last year. The two apprentices, Jordan Coulton and Natassia Sinclair, are working towards the new level 4 higher apprenticeship in legal services, introduced in 2013 to offer an alternative entry route for those wanting to pursue a career in law.

Over the next two years, they will learn about a range of practice areas and support fee-earners, and in five years’ time they could be running their own caseload and on their way to qualifying as an associate solicitor. Government funding is available through the Apprenticeship Grant for Employers (AGE), so this was an added financial incentive.

“Apprenticeships were attractive to us because we can combine their study and apply it to what we do here,” explains Jon Gregson, an associate at Weightmans. “Jordan, for example, is working on commercial litigation, and is using real-life case work as evidence to support his qualification.”

Combining qualifications with earning

Weightmans is just one example of the growth of apprenticeships in white-collar industries. Employers from accountancy firms through to major high-street banks now offer the chance for young people to join at the age of 18 or 19 and work their way up through different levels of apprenticeship qualifications, even up to degree level, all while earning money and gaining valuable on-the-job experience.

Employers are now increasing the breadth of apprenticeships they offer, so the uptake of both higher and advanced apprenticeships is rising fast. In the 2012/13 academic year, 207,700 people started advanced apprenticeships, up from 187,900 in 2011/12 and 153,900 in 2010/11. For higher apprenticeships, the numbers have almost doubled since 2011/12, with 9,800 starts in 2012/13.

At telecoms company Telefónica, higher apprentices are offered the opportunity to study for a foundation degree and can even top up with a full undergraduate degree at the end, so there is a clear career path available.

“These are big employers actively seeking apprenticeships. They’re offering to take young people on a journey through their organisation, mapping different levels of apprenticeship to that and enabling them to learn about the environment and culture of the place they’re working,” explains Paul Kilgour, director of apprenticeships at learndirect. “It’s all part of their war on talent; they can pick up some really capable learners at 18 and influence their role from a young age, helping them to grow with the company.”

Long-term investment

This has certainly been the case at Weightmans. While the firm does take on graduates for a limited number of training contracts, as well as support paralegals in working towards qualifying as an associate or solicitor, offering the apprenticeship route enables the firm to fully immerse apprentices in its culture, ethos and values and get them used to its particular ways of working.

“Because this is a long-term investment, we can train them at a pace that matches their development, as well as see if they’re the right fit without the cost investment of a training contract,” Gregson says.

At the bank Santander, around 40% of its hires come from the under-24 age group, so offering an apprenticeship seemed like a good fit. The firm is one of the Government’s apprenticeship “trailblazers” for the banking sector, so it is involved in shaping the standard for financial services apprenticeship schemes.

“It has meant we can increase the diversity of hires and offer the incentive of a qualification,” explains Marcus Lee, Santander’s head of resourcing and talent. This year Santander will recruit more than 200 apprentices, while taking on just 70 graduates.

Alternative to university

But while forward-thinking employers such as these now see the benefit of taking on individuals at a younger age and offering them a career path, one of the ongoing challenges is convincing young people – and their parents – that following an apprenticeship is a credible alternative to going to university.

“Tuition fees don’t seem to be putting people off,” says Tony Dolphin, senior economist at thinktank IPPR. “If someone is in the upper half of academic ability at school, from the age of 14 they’ll be set on a track to do A-levels and go to university. They might not be offered an alternative. There’s still a job to be done in explaining that [apprenticeships are] not second best.”

Something that might improve this “parity of esteem” issue is that in a growing number of forward-thinking employers, apprentices’ career paths will be mapped out for them from their first day on the job.

“Employers are crafting apprenticeships for the jobs they need, not just now but in the future,” says Kilgour. “They’re showing people what it looks like as they go through different levels in terms of responsibility, knowledge and experience – managing whole job families through to senior managers and directors.”

At Telefónica, meanwhile, the apprenticeship scheme has been so successful (it currently employs 15 higher and 60 advanced apprentices) that teams are often approaching the learning and development department to ask if they can have an apprentice join them.

“We don’t see our apprentices as visitors – an apprenticeship can be just the starting point of a long career. Ask Derek McManus, our chief operating officer – he started out as an apprentice 26 years ago and has worked his way up the ladder to sit on the Telefónica UK board, gaining a degree and a wealth of experience on the way,” says Abi Bracken, head of learning and development.

Joint effort by government and industry

The Government is also working to raise the profile of apprenticeships as a career path for young people. Last week it announced it would launch a new online resource for 16-year-olds who choose not to go to university, based on the university applications website run by UCAS. It is hoped this will push attitudes towards apprenticeships in the UK in the direction of those in Germany, where vocational education is considered a more established rite of passage.

Employer involvement is far deeper there than it is in the UK, and courses are designed and paid for by employers and government. According to Katerina Rudiger, head of skills and policy campaigns at the CIPD, we are still “a way away” from this level of employer involvement in apprenticeship frameworks.

Karen Woodward, deputy director of apprenticeships and employer implementation policy at the Skills Funding Agency, acknowledges that there is still more to be done: “The apprenticeships reform programme will help drive greater employer ownership of, and investment in, apprenticeships,” she says. “By giving employers direct control over the funding of the external training of their apprentices, employers can drive up their quality and relevance.”

This situation is beginning to change, with “trailblazer” employers and industry bodies having a substantial say in the content of apprenticeship frameworks, boosting their relevance and reputation. Learndirect, for example, has been involved in shaping an apprenticeship framework for a large funeral care company, which could be adopted across the whole industry. In recruitment, industry body the Institute of Recruiters led a consortium of businesses and training providers to come up with its own framework for the staffing sector.

What employers are beginning to learn is that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: apprenticeships can be just one route into the organisation, alongside school leaver programmes, graduate programmes and other sources of talent. Furthermore, because so much of the learning happens on the job, it means it can benefit the business immediately.

“We only know what we know through doing it day in, day out,” say Gregson from Weightmans. “In law, a lot of the job is about communication and confidence, and you don’t get that from studying a degree.”

Comments are closed.