Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wilshaw is right: there is a real need for quality apprenticeships. But to shift perceptions away from quantity and towards quality, we need to change attitudes.
There were 440,000 apprentice starts in 2013/14 – more than double those in 2007. Our government is recognising their value, having announced the apprenticeship levy plan to reach a target of three million apprentices by 2020.
Businesses are increasingly recognising it too. The 5% Club – a collection of businesses from across the UK which seek to meet and maintain a 5 per cent figure of apprentices, graduate recruits and sponsored students within their organisations – has welcomed its 131st member this month.
But we are still a way off matching Germany’s top-notch apprenticeship system. We are facing a critical skills shortage in the UK, which may render many British industries uncompetitive on a global stage.
In particular, engineering, manufacturing and construction are feeling the strain. To some companies, this crisis is a threat. To others, it’s an opportunity – but we must seize it fast or risk failure.
This is more than a numbers game. Most business leaders I speak with understand that supporting young people is the most significant investment we can make.
But it’s not just businesspeople and politicians who need to invest. More focus should be placed on schools and homes.
“The challenge for parents is to understand apprenticeships and become wiser to the opportunities they present”
It seems incredible that pupils are not being presented with all the options by careers experts. The given route is GCSE, A-levels and then university.
The opportunities in apprentices are underplayed, or sometimes not even mentioned. That means a major route into work and skills is being kept hidden at a vital stage.
One way to combat this lies in our academic league tables, which are currently skewed towards traditional routes.
If schools are measured by the amount of young people embarking on apprenticeships as well as the amount going to university, then such options will be perceived as equal alternatives.
Of course, any new approach should not be to push everyone into apprenticeships. But neither should we stay on the same path and attempt to persuade all 16-year-olds to set off on an unquestioned journey into higher education.
At home, some parents fear apprenticeships are something to avoid. The challenge for parents is to understand apprenticeships and become wiser to the opportunities they present.
On-the-job bachelor’s degrees are one such opportunity. This is something we are introducing here at Balfour Beatty in engineering, quantity surveying and construction management – and it’s received great feedback so far.
I encourage other businesses to follow suit. It makes business sense, as you have a workforce with relevant skills and knowledge. It also gives the individual a headstart in their chosen field.
In their lifetime, qualified apprentices will earn £150,000 more than their peers who took something other than the workplace-learning route.
It’s is often the most sensible option for an intelligent young person who knows exactly what career they want to pursue.
It is vital parents don’t view apprenticeships as something to be feared but as a route into a high-skilled, high-value career.
Only then will we truly unlock the full potential in the next generation and the increased skills base to compete globally for decades to come.
Leo Quinn is chief executive of Balfour Beatty and founder of The 5% Club