Apprenticeships or Degrees? Why not both?

The image of apprenticeships is improving but there is still some way to go in changing the perception that apprenticeships are the poor relation to a University education.

Whilst studies have explored the issue, it remains an important area to keep in the spotlight as the manufacturing sector works hard to retain expertise, attract new blood and stop the demise of many skills within its field. It is a key issue that many others working in the sector see as essential to overcome in order for manufacturing to continue to thrive and the UK economy to survive.

But is the reason the industry is struggling to attract young apprentices because we aren’t making them enough of a priority? Typically, high achievers at school or college are pushed towards a university degree and those that struggle to get the grades for university are steered into apprenticeships, but should this be the case?

Why is it often only a case of either or? At a time when employers are increasingly on the lookout for experienced workers, why are we not suggesting that university graduates also look at apprenticeships as a way of gaining real, on the job experience? Alongside their domestic studies? That actually real experience could be considered more valuable in progressing a career or more importantly, getting your foot in the door and that first step on the career ladder?  Whilst a degree is an excellent achievement to have, how many of these degrees are based on theory alone, when what companies really need are young people to train and grow with the business, where both parties benefit from day one?

It is a real concern that the lack of skills in the labour market to support manufacturing will result in successful businesses struggling to keep afloat in the next decade and may not survive due to their inability to recruit employees with the right experience.

With many apprenticeships being seen as the alternative for young people who haven’t quite made it to university, are the graduates actually the ones missing out on future career prospects?

What’s the solution?  According to a survey conducted last year by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (1), it’s clear that whilst perceptions among parents are improving, the wider community that influences young people also has a big part to play and needs to do more.  There is still an enormous amount of work to be done to position an apprenticeship as the equivalent career path to a university degree.

Should we change our thinking and should Universities help support real skills development by taking those that have completed a year of work experience or a year’s apprenticeship before enrolling on a degree course?  Should this be part of the entry criteria?  Is that how society changes to building a more sustainable labour market which protects manufacturing and industry?

It could also be argued that schools, especially at a Primary level, could play a greater part in changing perception and opening pupils’ eyes earlier to how important it is to learn and have a skill in working life.  It’s not a case of swaying children to a particular side – university verses apprenticeship – but positioning both as a credible choice for capable and bright individuals; that bright doesn’t necessarily mean gaining a degree, but that the clever thing is to get experience under your belt as well as completing a degree.

There are many great examples where companies do promote and recruit apprentices but these in the main tend to be the larger firms such as BT, Kwik Fit, Land Rover, Rolls Royce and BAE Systems.

We need more companies to shout about their success with apprentices; especially amongst SMEs, to ensure a more positive perception of apprentices is conveyed.

But what we need to remember is that it is about choice, that neither a degree nor an apprenticeship is better than each other; that each has its benefits and merits and that different young people thrive in different situations and are not all alike. This country needs a mix of skilled and qualified young people at all levels for a strong, stable and prosperous future.

(1) http://www.imeche.org/news/engineering/perceptions-of-apprenticeships-improving 

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