It’s not university recruitment that needs a leg-up, it’s apprenticeships

The case for apprenticeships – to a degree. John Giles/PA Wire

It’s a lovely word: apprenticeship. It conjures up images of halcyon days gone by, when young men learned their skills from a master craftsman or technician over a lengthy period of time. Apprenticeships were traditionally associated with boys and men. Similar “learning by doing” did take place in sectors predominantly populated by women, but they were often not described or discussed as apprenticeships.

How all of that has changed. Political commitments to raising aspirations have totally altered the mind-sets of those who used to see an apprenticeship as the pinnacle of their occupational dreams. Now, despite apprenticeships returning to political favour, more and more young people are being encouraged to go to university and the government has just launched a £22m new national initiative of regional networks aimed at helping them get there.

Jobs for the lads

It’s worth remembering that the much-heralded apprenticeships of old often concealed a multitude of sins. Until the early 1970s, apprenticeships were often a tactical move in protected trades to ensure that the “lads of dads” got the jobs. Research from the 1970s showed that it was personal contacts and insider knowledge – working class “social capital” – rather than modest entry qualifications that slotted young men, most of them white, into apprenticeships. They had usually got the job before their exam results were known.

But young people aspiring to apprenticeships without the knowledge or the links – many of them from minority ethnic groups – waited for their exam results before applying, obeying formal recruitment mechanisms. By then it was too late, because they were too old for a system where wages were based on age, not stage.

At the other end of the tunnel was the risk of being laid off once the apprenticeship – of three, four or five years – was over: employers retained the best and discarded those they didn’t want to transfer to adult wages. So it was not always an automatic route to skilled employment.

Yet, despite these and other caveats, an apprenticeship was a desirable destination for many working class kids. It was associated in their minds with high wages and secure employment, often as a result of a cultural message from their parents.

Huge decline

In parallel with the demise of Britain’s manufacturing industry, in the last 30 years we have seen a dramatic decline in what might be called “old fashioned” apprenticeships that often did lead to steady incomes and regular work. During the 1990s they were replaced with a raft of employer-based training measures that, rather deceptively, carried the label of apprenticeships or traineeships. And many had far more unpredictable quality and prospects, producing scepticism among young people and their families about their value.

All this was within the broader context of proclamations throughout the European Union that we were on the cusp of a knowledge-based society. Those without further and higher education would, it was said, be left behind.

There was, and is, some truth in that. Formal qualifications do still confer advantages in the labour market, though less and less through securing employment that is commensurate with those levels of attainment. Known as “qualification inflation” or “credentialism”, young people are slowly coming to question whether or not they want to end up a “gringo” – a graduate in a non-graduate occupation.

Blair’s 50% pledge

The political objective established by Tony Blair’s New Labour government was for a 50% participation rate in higher education, leaving the “forgotten half” – sometimes literally – out in the cold. Meanwhile, of course, not everybody does go to university.

The numbers of young people aged 16 to 24 not in education, training or employment, so-called NEETs, has hovered around one million for some time.

It was with those young people in mind that Labour leader Ed Miliband made a commitment in September 2014 to re-establish high-quality vocational training through even more modern apprenticeships. Labour now pledge that as many young people will be able to access apprenticeships as go to university.

Miliband has pledged as many apprenticeship places as graduates. Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

Prime minister David Cameron followed by suggesting withdrawing housing benefit from young people in order to fund 3m new apprenticeships. Other new initiatives include the launch of degree apprenticeships, through which people can earn a degree as they train, starting in digital industries.

Notwithstanding the stereotypes about Polish plumbers saturating the market and undercutting skilled wages, there are important opportunities for young people within the skilled labour market. Only this month, in the New Year’s Honours List, Charlie Mullins, the founder of Pimlico Plumbers, was appointed OBE for services to his trade. He left school with no qualifications and now employs 260 people with a turnover of £24m.

Yet some evidence now suggests that a significant number of today’s apprenticeships (perhaps a third of a million) are going to people over the age of 25.

Do universities need a new push?

So it’s worth asking whether the country needs another initiative to encourage young people to opt for higher education. The National Networks for Collaborative Outreach, a new £22m scheme involving more than 200 higher education institutions and reaching 4,300 secondary schools and colleges, is intended to help even more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply and get into university.

Despite the draconian fees regime in England that can leave some graduates with debt as high as £50,000, the numbers of those going on to higher education has not gone down – a record number of applicants were accepted in August 2014. Plans to remove the cap on the number of places universities can offer from autumn 2015, is likely to push this even higher.

It’s been suggested that many graduates will be unable to repay their debt. Still, the coalition government persists with the mantra of the “transformative experience” of higher education and the dependency of the future UK economy on “highly trained graduates”.

I have little doubt about the value of higher education from a personal point of view, but much more caution needs to be exercised about its relation to the labour market if it’s only the qualifications from established and recognised institutions that maintain their currency. Those graduates who get similar qualifications from “newer” universities and other degree-awarding institutions could be left up the creek without a paddle, particularly if they lack “social capital”.

An apprenticeship, carefully chosen, may be an equally valid choice if future income stability and security is the primary consideration. But “parity of esteem” – that old bogey of trying to give vocational achievement equal kudos with academic achievement – may still be a distant and elusive goal.


Next read: German apprenticeships are built on a cohesive national plan, not ad hoc partnerships