Apprenticeships have hit the headlines again.  The Chancellor’s Budget announcement last week halving the contribution small businesses must make to the apprenticeship levy to access on-the-job training, has been welcomed in most quarters.  It is widely seen as a way of boosting take-up of the scheme which has been designed to help address the UK’s poor productivity and tackle the skills gap being faced by a number of essential industries.

A lot of attention has been given to apprentice numbers – or lack of them – particularly in sectors like construction which faces a high retirement rate and the prospect of its workforce depleting by 20 to 25 per cent in the next, post-Brexit decade.  Less has been said about the range of sectors and apprenticeship positions on offer with over 1,500 job roles available and options as diverse as aerospace and silversmithing, engineering and boat building, TV production, veterinary nursing and the law.

There is a real perception issue.  While some of these fit the mould of traditional apprenticeships quite readily, others are thought of as careers embarked on after a degree course.

The Blairite policy shift towards encouraging more people to experience university has resulted in mixed outcomes for some – particularly since the introduction of higher tuition fees.  A social narrative that university is the acceptable face of educational success and attainment has prevailed.  This has contributed to a perceived and unwarranted second-class citizenship for those undertaking vocational learning and on-the-job training.

When talking to employers and industry trade bodies behind the delivery of some of the apprenticeship schemes designed to attract the next generation of talent, it becomes clear that, in some cases, it is people’s parents, relatives or friends are the ones who discourage them from taking a vocational qualification.  This is done out of concern that they will limit their opportunities to have a secure long-term career, social status or financial security.

It’s true that not all vocational qualifications result in a job to walk into – but then nor do all degrees.  More needs to be done to match curriculums to the roles required in our economy and create alternative pathways into professions, beyond apprenticeships which are currently flavour of the month.  Polytechnics anyone?

More also needs to be done to change the way we think and talk about vocational qualifications.  Whether you’re an engineer, plumber, market researcher or management consultant who has a degree or NVQ.  Only then we will really begin to solve issues of social mobility, diverse workplaces and boards and create a more culturally and economically rich and productive society.

Emma Molton headshot

Emma Molton is a director at Camargue