It’s simple: everyone likes apprentices. No matter who I speak with, when I mention apprenticeships, people react warmly and this crosses ages and party lines, regions of the country and backgrounds, ethnicity and gender. Apprenticeships, or at least the notion of them, are popular.
So why is it that the prestige and value many people associate with apprenticeships is so much lower than the esteem reserved for a University education, and other academic qualifications?
My study, The Richard Review, examined this conundrum, and found that a diversity of views exists in England on what an apprenticeship is and, more importantly, what it should be going forward. This plethora of perception is the first stumbling block because it has distorted the very definition of apprenticeships, causing us to lose sight of the core features of what makes apprenticeships valuable and unique.
There is no doubt that apprenticeships matter. Many jobs are best prepared for whilst on the job, and no single means of learning will suit everyone. Many of today’s leading companies in the UK include apprentices, who are valued for their raw talent and aptitude rather than the grades they achieved at school. These forward-thinking companies should be praised for recognising the value to be gained from these apprenticed employees, who are often more loyal and effective than other employees.
Our European neighbours have been much better at shaping apprenticeship programmes and harnessing the value of apprentices, and there are certainly lessons we can learn from countries such as Germany, where youth unemployment level is a meagre eight per cent — compared with 25.9 per cent in London — and this shows what can be achieved if, for example, we broaden the base of companies hiring apprentices.
Society benefits as well because apprenticeships provide a ladder for many people into employment, and providing routes into work is particularly important in these challenging economic times.
Improving the quality of the workforce also gives us a competitive advantage over other economies and effectively prepares many young people for a lifetime of employment by ensuring they have the transferable skills required to be successful in a dynamic and changing economy. This is in addition to the industry-specific knowledge and skills people need to be confident and competent in their current job, their industry sector, and beyond too.
So what needs to change? I believe that apprenticeships require a new job role, a role that is new to the individual and requires them to learn a substantial amount before they can do that job effectively. And an apprenticeship model must involve sustained and substantial training, fully and closely integrated within the experience of learning and practicing a real job, in order to deliver the most value.
In answering the question of what an apprenticeship should be in the future, and how apprenticeships can meet the needs of our changing economy in England, my Review proposes a new strategy for how a robust apprenticeship system should work. This is expressed through ten key recommendations, which should be viewed as a whole because they are all interlinked.
Ultimately, we need an apprenticeship system that meets the needs, and maximises the potential opportunities of this country’s economy, our learners, our approach to government and regulation, our future. Whilst the recommendations are tough and ambitious, they are entirely achievable if we have the will to engage.