Apprenticeships: good for skills and social mobility
By Jo Faragher on 16 September 2019
Last week a YouGov survey found that a quarter of employers felt let down by their apprenticeship providers – the latest in a long line of headlines decrying the government’s flagship skills policy for failing to deliver on its targets. But while employers, training providers and policy makers struggle to boost the numbers of people going into vocational training, they’re often forgetting one of the key benefits apprenticeships can provide – access to the workplace for those that may have been denied it before.
This summer another report by Severn Trent found that apprenticeships can support social mobility in ‘cold spot’ areas where employment opportunities are less readily available. This can be life-changing for some: pursuing just a level 2 apprenticeship can offer the salary potential of between £48,000 and £74,000 over a lifetime. For the utilities company itself this has already been beneficial. It says that offering apprenticeships in Coventry, where it is based, means there are many more opportunities for people living in areas in the bottom half of the government’s national social mobility index.
Social mobility is still a huge issue in the UK. Graduates from poorer families earn 10% less than their peers from wealthier families, and people from working-class backgrounds are still hugely under-represented in top jobs in politics, media and the judiciary. Admissions data shows that 18 year-olds from better-off families (as in those not registered for free school meals) are twice as likely to go to university, and six times more likely to go to a selective university. This means that for thousands of those looking for their first step on the career ladder, apprenticeships can be a lifeline.
This is more than a CSR initiative – there are clear business benefits, too. Apprenticeships often build skills in fields where these are in short supply, so there’s the double benefit of expanding the talent pool to a more diverse audience while ‘growing your own’ skills for the future at the same time. Every year the Social Mobility Foundation runs an index of companies who are leading the charge in this area, and apprenticeships often feature highly. One of the top 10 employers in the index, consulting firm PwC, offers 100 people a year the chance to pursue a graduate apprenticeship in data science or technology with no tuition fees.
It can be hard work to formulate the right opportunities for the right audience, however. The 5% Club, a lobbying body that is pushing for all employers to achieve 5% of their workforce in ‘earn and learn’ positions, argues that employers must address outdated perceptions about apprenticeships being ‘second best’ to university routes. It also advises employers to examine their recruitment processes so they can see where talented applicants from different backgrounds fall through the cracks. Are they expecting candidates to have a degree for a role that doesn’t really need one, for example?
Furthermore, are there internal barriers within the company that hamper those from disadvantaged backgrounds from progressing within the organisation? It’s all very well establishing a recruitment and training programme that supports social mobility but any positive impact will be lost if those people don’t feel they can grow within your organisation. Employers also need to ensure this is more than a token gesture and that there are real opportunities to build on qualifications. This was something highlighted by the Social Mobility Commission in its ‘State of the Nation’ report earlier this year. It said: “Apprenticeships could also be a powerful vehicle for social mobility, but the reality is not as clear cut; those from lower socio-economic backgrounds are clustered in lower level apprenticeships.” It warned that increasing access to higher-level apprenticeships (which attract more funding) for more affluent people could make it harder for those with lower qualifications to get onto the career ladder.
As a long-term strategy, however, apprenticeships can really help to boost diversity as well as skills. Earlier this year, it was revealed that some £300 million remained unspent by the larger employers that pay into the government’s Apprenticeship Levy. Many have called for it to be reformed into a wider ‘skills tax’ so that they can dedicate the funding to all types of training, not just apprenticeships. But while it remains a vehicle to fund on-the-job training through apprenticeship qualifications, why not use it to build a broader talent base from all backgrounds?
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