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Apprenticeships must not be seen as the ‘poor relative’ to degrees

The forthcoming introduction of the Apprenticeships Levy means we should focus more than ever on alternative routes to professional success

Written by Anthony Walters, head of policy, ACCA UK

WITH GCSE results following hot on the heels of last week’s A-level results, it’s that rare time of year when young people’s futures become a national talking point. Yet while university access invariably dominates the discussion, the forthcoming introduction of the Apprenticeships Levy means we should focus more than ever on alternative routes to professional success.

ACCA firmly believes that access to rewarding careers should be open to all who are able to demonstrate the necessary abilities. To ensure access to different careers, particularly paths into the professions, is opened to as broad and diverse a talent pool as possible it is vital that there are varied entry routes. We therefore support and welcome efforts to create apprenticeships which are not only fit for purpose for the 21st century, but that also offer genuine career opportunities for young people starting out in life.

In opening access to training and employment opportunities, apprenticeships will also play a key role in helping promote social inclusion and social mobility. However, to realise the full potential of apprenticeships and ensure they act as routes into careers will take time, effort and investment.

In order to take the debate forward it is important to understand what the current perceptions are around apprenticeships, particularly for the young people they are intended to assist and attract.

Earlier this year we commissioned YouGov to undertake a poll of 16-18 year olds to find out what young people really think of apprenticeships. In many respects the findings showed us that apprenticeship routes are still seen as the ‘poor relative’ when compared with going to university. For this perception to change there needs to be a culture shift in the way apprenticeships are viewed by schools, parents and pupils/students and this must start with careers advice that is geared up to discuss the opportunities that apprenticeships can potentially offer.

Our poll findings showed that there is a shortage of advice on apprenticeships with almost one-third of respondents saying that they had received no careers advice on apprenticeship pathways. Linked to this is the fact that the breadth and depth of apprenticeship opportunities are not fully understood by many. To address this, the availability of good advice and guidance on apprenticeships needs to be greatly improved. For this to happen coordination of government departments, agencies and careers advice agencies, along with schools and colleges needs to be greatly improved. To that end, the announcement of KPMG’s partnership with the Open University to develop a full-service apprenticeship programme should be welcomed.

The levy will no doubt impact heavily on employers’ behaviour – many of those paying in to the levy will not want to simply write it off as a tax, so will most likely seek to recoup their payments by opening up apprenticeship opportunities. This may see some firms diverting funding previously ringfenced for graduate training into apprenticeships via the levy.

Yet there is a risk that the government’s drive to deliver 3 million apprenticeships by 2020 will end up focusing too much on attracting business buy-in rather than the apprentice themselves.

It is vital that the skills gained through any apprenticeship programme are transferrable. One of the key issues raised by young people was that they see apprenticeships as limiting their future career options. There is a perception, possibly a misconception, that those doing an apprenticeship may be shoehorned into a particular role in a particular industry.

By their nature, apprenticeship routes are designed to develop an individual’s skills in a specific industry or profession, but they also provide an opportunity to develop many transferable skills. At a basic level such transferable skills might be time management and organisation skills, at the advanced level they could be leadership or financial management skills. Through an apprenticeship softer skills, such as dealing with customers/clients can also be developed. All of which provide strong foundations for future career changes. Someone completing an apprenticeship should come away with a range of valuable skills, whether or not they chose to pursue the specialism that their apprenticeship has focussed on.

Time is of the essence on this. Already the skills gap has been highlighted as one of the biggest obstacles facing the Northern Powerhouse. In light of the Brexit vote and the government’s ambitions for a new industrial strategy for the UK a successful and sustain approach to apprenticeships will be key in delivering a highly skilled workforce that will drive future UK competitiveness and productivity.

At ACCA, we are currently working hard to develop apprenticeship routes into accountancy and taxation at foundation and professional levels. We hope other organisations across different industries will follow us down this path to ensure, by 2020, all young people planning their futures are able to make a full and informed choice about the myriad options available to them in their careers.

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