I was introduced to James, a new colleague during a meeting today. James was smart, personable and intelligent and although he seemed young and had only been with the company a short time he was adding demonstrable value to the team. Later, I mentioned this bright new graduate to my manager, and after some momentary confusion he explained that James was actually one of the new recruits on our apprenticeship scheme.

I was quite taken aback. I’m not proud to admit this, but I had always assumed that an apprenticeship was a poor substitute for a university degree, for candidates that didn’t have the necessary academic qualifications or ambition to enter the increasingly competitive graduate market. But James had dispelled my assumption as he was clearly of “graduate calibre” and it got me thinking about the benefits that apprentices can bring to organisations.

Attracting and retaining graduates can be expensive in its own right, but with increasing reports from employers that many graduates leave university under prepared for the world of work there is an added expense for the organisation to support the graduate in their transition from study to work. Compare this to an apprenticeship programme that can be tailor made in accordance with an employer’s skills requirements, resulting in candidates that are equipped with exactly the right skills for the job at significantly less cost to the organisation. Thus, high-quality apprenticeships can be an effective solution to address an employer’s skills gap and even respected academics are touting the merits of vocational qualifications.

There is plenty of data in support of the value of apprenticeships:

  • An independent survey from EAL reports that over three-quarters of industry employers regard the vocational learning route as equal or preferable to a higher education when preparing people for successful careers.
  • A survey for the department of Business Innovation & Skills highlights that satisfaction among employers is high. 88% employers were satisfied (with 69% being very satisfied) with the relevance of the training. Also, nearly half had already recommended apprenticeships to other employers.
  • According to Apprenticeships.org, 92% of employers who employ apprentices believe that Apprenticeships lead to a more motivated and satisfied workforce and one in five employers are hiring more apprentices to help them through the tough economic climate.

There is also plenty of support for employers wishing to offer apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service offers funding for apprenticeships, dependent on the apprentices age and sector. A government funded initiative called “Age 16 to 24” also offers employers with less than 250 employees grants of up to £1500 towards the cost of apprentices salaries. Furthermore, the economic risk for employers posed by the case of Flett v Matheson 2005, which ruled that damages could be awarded to apprentices for loss of earnings in the event of employer being unable to continue the
apprenticeship, has been removed by The Apprenticeships (Form of Apprenticeship Agreement) Regulations 2012. These new regulations make hiring apprentices less risky although a duty of care is
still owed to these young people and employers should only hire apprentices in good faith.

However, the benefits of apprenticeships are not one sided. Morale among apprentices is high with job satisfaction in 9 out of 10 apprentices. Key findings from the department of Business Innovation & Skills include:

  • One third of individuals who had finished their apprenticeship had received a promotion, and of those in work, three quarters reported taking on more responsibility in their job.
  • Eight out of ten apprentices believe that their apprenticeship has improved their ability to do their job, provided them with sector-relevant skills and knowledge, and improved their career prospects.
  • Apprenticeships also equip individuals with the confidence they need to fulfill their aspirations, with almost nine in ten strongly agreeing that they are more confident about their own abilities as a result of undertaking the apprenticeship.

Of course, I couldn’t resist quizzing James about his motivations to ‘go down the vocational route’ and he answered without hesitation. He explained that while he had the necessary qualifications to go to university, when he compared the rise in tuition fees with the high-quality apprenticeships available in his area of interest he could not justify the expense of going to university. “I do have mates at uni and I love hearing about their antics, but I don’t regret not going. When they graduate in a few years time in debt and with no guarantee of employment I will be fully qualified in a respectable career and earning a good wage and will hopefully also have a degree of my own, so I am pretty comfortable with my decision.” And looking at the qualifications James is set to gain including Prince 2, ITIL and a BSc Computing and IT Practice he makes a pretty compelling argument!

As a graduate with a relatively successful career, I am certainly not arguing against the merits of a university degree or employing graduates. However in these times of austerity and rising unemployment I would urge both employers and students alike not to overlook the benefits of vocational training.

A guide to offering apprenticeships is available on the CIPD website.