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Apprenticeships offer people of all ages the chance to upskill and give companies the chance to train stars of the future. Paul Golden explains how they work and talks to people on both sides – at Azets, Grant Thornton and Mercedes-Benz.

Over the past decade, apprenticeships have been undergoing something of a renaissance. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Provisional government figures show that between August 2020 and January 2021, 161,900 apprenticeships were started – a decline of 18.5% compared with the number started in the same period of the 2019/20 academic year. In part, the decline is due to the coronavirus restrictions, which will have had an impact on learning for trainees across the UK. However, if apprenticeships are to work for both employer and employee, and contribute to reducing unemployment (particularly among young people), further improvements are required.

Currently, apprenticeships can be accessed by anyone aged 16 or over who is not already in full-time education. These trainees receive a contract of employment and are entitled to holiday leave over the period of their apprenticeship, which will take between one and six years to complete.

Apprentices are funded through a combination of government and employer contributions and must study for at least 20% of their working hours with a college, university or training provider.

Apprentice schemes

Making apprenticeships appeal

However, there is still an unfortunate perception that following this path, rather than going to university, represents some kind of failure.

“Changing this attitude will take a lot of work, but one important thing we can do is clearly and consistently promote the benefits of doing an apprenticeship,” says Andy Norman, Research Analyst at the Centre for Progressive Policy. “The government has also tried to legislate to force companies to take on more apprentices. However, many employers have responded by simply re-labelling training for their existing staff as apprenticeships, reducing opportunities for young people.”

Just under a quarter (23.9%) of the new apprentices who started in the six months to January were younger than 19. In light of the findings published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in its COVID-19 and the Youth Labour Market report last December, this is clearly a concern. Less than half of employers planned to hire 16 to 24-year-olds in 2021 and only 5% of the employers that had not been planning to recruit apprentices were reconsidering this stance in the wake of new government incentives. (Employers will receive an increased incentive payment of £3,000 for each new apprentice of any age who joins their organisation from 1 April 2021 to 30 September 2021.)

Perks of the job

The CIPD has suggested that to change attitudes, incentives to take on college- and school-leavers need to be stronger, particularly among employers that favour university graduates. The CIPD’s Public Policy Adviser and Senior Labour Market Analyst, Gerwyn Davies, has recommended making apprenticeship incentives more generous and better targeted at 16 to 24-year-olds.

Helen Dawson, Head of People at manufacturing organisation Globus Group, says that there also needs to be more awareness around the fact that apprentices don’t have to be a school-leaver or young person. “Apprenticeships are a great way to upskill and try a different career, no matter what stage of life,” she says. “We need to encourage people of all ages to consider an apprenticeship route and let them know there isn’t an age limit.”

Echoing this, Jane Hickie, Chief Executive at Association of Employment and Learning Providers, notes that entry-level recruitment is particularly important during a recession, when older or unemployed people and career changers are looking for a job that comes with properly accredited training. She also points out that 74% of independent training providers are rated either good or outstanding according to Ofsted inspections, and that annual employer and learner surveys over the past decade have consistently identified very high satisfaction ratings with the training delivered.

Funding for providers

“In further education colleges, funding has an impact as popular courses can sometimes prop up the smaller courses, leading to disproportionate focus on some subjects,” says Helen Booth, Director of HomeServe Foundation. “But high-quality training is available across the country and we have seen the success of it first-hand as a provider. Employers value the feedback of expert trainers on how their apprentice is getting along and what they can add to their business.”

Norman also refers to government efforts to improve overall quality of apprenticeships, for example, by introducing compulsory end-point assessments. But he says there is evidence to suggest that apprentices tend to receive a higher standard of employer engagement with their training in traditional apprenticeship sectors, such as engineering, than in other disciplines.

As for companies that take on apprentices, David Whitson-Black, Group Head of Talent Development at accountancy firm Azets, believes: “Apprenticeships and early careers provide the best opportunity to develop our future leaders.”

Box 1: Learning support

Accountancy firm Azets has more than 900 students studying for professional qualifications, of which almost half are doing so through apprenticeships. For school-leavers, the programme takes six years to complete; for graduates, it lasts three or four years.

David Whitson-Black explains: “Each of our apprentices completes a professional qualification and also has to learn a set number of skills and behaviours, which are vital to all of our roles. This ensures that all apprentices get the best training and support to develop these skills and behaviours.”

Support is available from the government and it covers 95% of the costs (excluding salary), adds Whitson-Black. However, he accepts that there are challenges. For example, the rules state that an employer must give an apprentice at least 20% off-the-job training – a whole day of training every week for someone who is working full-time.

“You need the opportunity to embed any learning, which can take some time,” he says. “If there was more flexibility around the 20% and how training is delivered, I think the environment would improve.”

According to Whitson-Black, companies that use apprenticeships successfully need to let those who are reticent see the benefits for the company and the success that apprentices go on to enjoy with the right support, development and guidance.

Box 2: Practical experience

Raheeq Ahmad is a Senior Financial Services Audit Associate at Grant Thornton and currently working towards his ACA qualification with ICAEW. He joined the firm in 2018.

“During my final year of college in 2016, I decided I wanted to go through an apprenticeship scheme,” he recalls. “Being able to work and study towards my qualifications seemed like the best option for me, as I could present my work ethic to my employer, which would allow them to make an informed decision on whether they should hire me on a permanent basis.”

Ahmad found out about the programme via Leadership Through Sport & Business (LTSB), which ran a 16-month programme during which he completed a four-month pre-apprenticeship as a football coach at West Ham United Foundation.

“I was also able to complete my AAT Level 2 and 3 and gain practical interview experience,” adds Ahmad. “I attended speed interviews run by LTSB, which gave me the opportunity to meet employers from various accounting firms. Subsequently, I was hired by Grant Thornton for a 12-month apprenticeship and offered a permanent contract following successful completion.”

Ahmad explains that he was exposed to audit work from his first day, completing actual fieldwork rather than administrative tasks. “The work allowed me to appropriately challenge myself,” he says. “I was also coached by other members of the audit team, which helped improve my technical skills.”

As a school-leaver, he was concerned that he would be treated differently to the graduate associates. “This was not the case. Everyone was treated as a professional,” he adds. “I also felt like there wasn’t a strict hierarchy in place, as associates were encouraged to collaborate with the managers and partners in the team.”

He believes that apprenticeships are becoming more attractive to young people seeking alternatives to university. “They are the way forward, especially for careers in accounting and finance,” he says.

Box 3: Career development

Nicole Tagg is a Service Technician at car dealership Mercedes-Benz of Stafford. She started her three-year apprenticeship in September 2019.

“I found out about it while I was studying at sixth form,” she says. “I had only just started looking when I saw the Mercedes apprenticeship with Lookers advertised on Indeed. I was interested because it was local to me and my passion for motor sport encouraged me to choose this career.”

For Tagg, the Lookers website was really helpful, listing the benefits of the programme and featuring videos of current apprentices talking about the course.

After making initial contact with the company, she had a telephone interview followed by an online test, a face-to-face interview and then a skills test interview. Throughout the process, she received regular updates from HR.

Now, her duties include diagnosing, maintaining and repairing vehicles. “My career path could go in a number of different directions, although the usual route would be diagnostic technician (master technician), workshop controller and then service manager,” she says.

Tagg does not believe that she has been treated differently because she is an apprentice, rather than someone who joined the company from college or university. She describes the opportunity as a chance to balance learning and earning. “It has definitely made it easier for me to develop a career in this profession as I will have the experience as well as the theoretical knowledge,” she adds. “I have also been able to build working relationships with my colleagues.”

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  • Update History
    17 May 2021 (12: 00 AM BST)
    First published
    23 Mar 2023 (12: 00 AM GMT)
    Page updated with Related resources section, adding further reading on apprenticeships. These additional articles provide fresh insights, case studies and perspectives on this topic. Please note that the original article from 2021 has not undergone any review or updates.