A guide to apprenticeships for recruiters

Written by
Sharon Walpole

27 Jan 2016

27 Jan 2016 • by Sharon Walpole

Penguin Random House, one of the world’s most successful book publishers, recently announced they had dropped the requirement for new-entrant employees to have a university degree. And they’re not the only big company to reassess their hiring policy. Global accountancy-giant Ernst and Young also recently scrap its degree-only policy. It seems employers are catching on to the fact that a university degree isn’t the only way to spot potential talent, and having a degree doesn’t guarantee a star performer. 

University has always been the ‘promised land’ for those who wanted to get ahead. Over the last 30 years, the statistics for university attendance have gone through the roof and in December, UCAS reported that a total of 532,300 people entered UK higher education in 2015, an increase of 3.1%, and the highest number ever recorded. Clearly, this is welcome news; young people want to learn and this is something we should always celebrate. 

University: not for everyone

But it’s becoming clear that university is not the panacea for all youngsters – or for the UK economy. Neil Morrison, human resources director at Penguin hit the nail on the head: “We believe this is critical to our future to publish the best books that appeal to readers everywhere, we need to have people from different backgrounds with different perspectives and a workforce that truly reflects today's society." Basically, if you’re only ever going to look at graduates, you’re not seeing 50% of the potential talent pool. And in the long term, as a business, that’s going to affect your bottom line, and that hits the UK’s ability to compete as a global economy. 

It’s safe to say that over the last few years there’s has been a growing trend amongst some employers to only take on graduates, regardless of whether that degree is helpful or relevant to the job. It has got to the stage where it feels like having a degree is merely an easy way for HR people to cut down on the work of actually reading people's CVs properly. They just cut everyone that hasn't gone to Uni. This does not help any business.

It also affects people’s lives. In a now infamous research report published in August 2015, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that the UK has the second highest graduation rate in the OECD, at 54%, but we also have one of the highest levels of self-reported over-qualification among graduates in Europe. In fact, nearly 60% of UK graduates have ended up in non-graduate jobs, and the Government estimates that 45% of university graduates will never earn enough to repay their student loans. So sensibly, young people are starting to look for an alternative, which is fuelling the growth in apprenticeships. 

Apprenticeships are bigger and better than ever

Employers need to start giving apprenticeships a chance, although some companies still struggle with the concept. For decades apprenticeships have been seen as only for admin jobs and are viewed as difficult to set up. SMEs especially, need more support to set up their own apprenticeships. 

But there’s work to do in schools too. All young people must be offered good-quality information, advice and guidance in order to understand all of the pathways open to them. If schools are still incentivised to keep students in 6th forms and continue to celebrate their Oxbridge candidates, rather than promote vocational routes to work, little will change.   
There currently around 1500 different apprenticeship roles out there in more than 170 industries, each of which provides a chance to work and learn, so there are plenty of options for everyone – we just need to make sure that young people see them as a viable alternative. 

Tackling the skills shortage for UK plc

The UK has a skills shortage. But we’ve got high levels of youth unemployment too. Every apprenticeship training provider I talk to reports having more jobs and training opportunities available than candidates. We must tackle this skills gap, fast. But we can only do it through a co-ordinated approach by business, government and the education system. And we must stop encouraging young people always to study what they feel passionate about, and start trying to tempt them into roles that UK plc will need in five or 10 years’ time.  

Apprenticeships could be a new solution to youth unemployment, the skills gap, and boost our economy in general. They’re certainly a real, workable alternative for businesses. And I wouldn’t be surprised to find many more large companies setting up new schemes this year. After all, the idea of apprentices is as old as the country itself and will remain a crucial part of the mix of the future workforce – as long as employers follow Penguin Random House and stop insisting on degrees.