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How apprenticeships can boost social mobility

As the gap between the rich and everyone else grows, apprenticeships are a way to enable social mobility

The government’s own Social Mobility Commission report this week began with some damning words: “Britain is a deeply divided nation.” The report lays bare the alarming rate at which the gap between the rich and everyone else is growing.

Recent years have seen the majority of people enduring pay cuts, rising energy bills and increasing housing costs, the richest 1,000 have increased their wealth by £83bn in the last year and £400bn since the financial crash. For young people the issue is especially pressing.

Clearly something must be done. And some of the UK’s most prestigious firms are already taking a lead. EY and others have pinpointed apprenticeships as one possible way to tackle social mobility.

In 2015 EY removed the academic entry criteria (300 UCAS points and 2.1 degree) from its student recruitment process in the UK. It also removed ‘work experience’ and ‘positions of responsibility’ from the application form and operates a blind CV policy to reduce any unconscious bias in the selection process.

As a result, EY says it has seen a 75% increase in the number of applications to its student programmes (school leavers, graduates and interns), for a September 2016 start date. Instead of relying on traditional CV – with school/university/work experience to the fore – EY now uses a series of online tests to assess the strengths and future potential of students.

The theory is simple: get more youngsters from deprived areas with few prospects that have become disengaged from school and university into training and on a path to professional qualifications and watch the imbalance begin to shift.

The Social Mobility Commission report backs this up, saying apprenticeships are a more common path into employment for young people in many youth ‘coldspots’, but they are often of lower quality than in the hotspots.

Last year saw the publication of an interim report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission that sought to pinpoint exactly how apprenticeships can aid in improving social mobility. Among its recommendations were to

  • Expand the higher apprenticeship offer for young people
  • Create a UCAS-style portal for apprenticeships and vocational study to underpin careers advice with evidence
  • The Department of Business to publish an ‘apprenticeship opportunity tracker’

More work lies ahead, especially when it comes to spreading out the benefits across the country. The worst-performing regions for youth social mobility – the North East and East Midlands – have the lowest proportion of advanced or higher-level apprenticeship starts in the country (at around 40 per cent versus 46.5 per cent in London).

This is a problem because lower-level apprenticeships lead to lower pay and have lower chances of converting into a full-time role. So what are the government doing?  The new apprenticeship diversity hubs are a good example of local action.

The Department for Education and the Education & Skills Funding Agency are working with Local Enterprise Partnerships to bring together groups of public and private sector employers to improve black and minority ethnic representation in apprenticeships in local areas. The activity has only just begun, but awareness of local issues is being increased as a first step towards addressing them.

But why should FDs be focused on this issue when there are so many other pressures? For Harry Gooding, Sales & Marketing Director, Arch Apprentices, there are two answers: “Lots of studies show that a more diverse workforce tends to lead to better financial results, that link is there; secondly having diverse leadership and teams allows businesses to grow faster and adapt to change – it makes them more agile, essentially.”

Within KPMG, adding to the diversity of the company’s workforce is an increasingly important measure of performance. Martin Blackburn, Head of HR at the accounting firm, told the webinar that while a lot of organisations will say their people are their key asset, that is literally true for KPMG.

“Our clients want a broad range of thoughts and opinions, so to meet the client agenda you have to have a diverse team,” he said. “But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, unless business pursue diversity of hiring practices, I would question whether they will be able to get the talent into their businesses that they need.”

Gooding reports an ‘incredible shift’ in the careers landscape for young people. “We’ve never seen a change quite like this. The average amount of university debt is £45,000 so young people can choose to take that on (with the benefits it brings) or not. If you put yourself in that position with those two paths it feels like a difficult choice.”

Indeed he points out that the profile of younger people opting for the apprentice route has changed a lot. “We’re seeing a much broader profile of people embarking on apprenticeships.”

Blackburn says KPMG has taken the issue of mobility seriously, adding a level of support around their apprentices to make sure those without support at home (or without three years of independent living at University): they have a line manager and a buddy and a mentor to help them through what can be a stressful time as they enter the world of work.

“We have different schemes, and the majority go towards the fee-earning work; a smaller stream runs through the business services unit which supports the marketing and design department,” he explains.

“It’s a structured programme with proper training that allows individuals to flourish – and we feel that will make a difference when it comes to encouraging social mobility. Every little helps.”


Arch Apprentices is a pioneering training provider that supports businesses, governments and charities to create a cost-effective and capable workforce, by providing exceptional apprenticeship programmes for both existing employees and new hires. Find out more at Arch Apprentices.

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