Wilma Smythe

It was never a dilemma a decade ago. Apprentices were supposed to be hired to learn on the job and graduates to be hired ready to start work, meaning that there was a preference to hire graduates over apprentices.

But during my research on the talent gap, I have come across new evidence that suggests that this is changing, as employers are starting to hire more apprentices than ever before. The Association of Graduate Recruiters recently reported that apprentice vacancies have increased 24 per cent last year, while graduates, only increased by 2 per cent.

As the talent gap is widening, with more openings available than people who can fill them, it seems as though employers have turned their attention to apprentices in order to obtain many of the practical skills that they cannot find in graduates.

Indeed, not all universities convey to students the significance of having work experience during higher education. In our survey of university students, only about two thirds (63%) of them were aware of the offer to get work experience provided by their careers service. Even less (45%) were actively looking for internships and work placements while still at university. It seems as though many students still believe that a single degree will help them find a good job, and that getting immersed into their studies is the right priority during university life, aside from enjoying the social experience. Besides this, although students know that a degree will help them earn more over time than non-graduates, more students than ever before are anxious because of the lack of guarantee in finding quality work as well as the high amounts of student debt following graduation.

So why have apprentice vacancies grown so much?

Firstly, employers are not only interested in the practical skills, but also the ‘work-ready’ attitude that apprentices bring. They seem to embrace a workplace culture faster than graduates. They are perceived to have a more positive attitude as they made a decision that they’d rather be working than studying. Also, the fears experienced by graduates when starting their careers, such as starting at the bottom, are not much of an issue.

Secondly, there seems to be a growing trend that organisations do not only offer training to apprentices, but also the benefit of studying a university degree. Degree apprenticeships were launched by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in 2015  in order to combine university and workplace learning to enable apprentices earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree while getting paid the student fee by the employer and the Government. This means that some apprentices, at 21-22 years, will have a degree and 3-4 years of relevant work experience without the inherent debt. Organisations such as Accenture, IBM, BT have already launched this programme and many employers and universities are preparing theirs too, so it is likely that we see further growth in this space.

Finally, this spring the Government imposed an ‘apprenticeships levy’, whereby 0.5 percent of large employers’ payroll costs will need to be spent on apprentices. While some employers claim that this move might have unintended consequences, such as forcing a reduction in the training budget for the other employees, it might be that this policy has made more employers aware of the benefits of hiring apprentices, ultimately persuading them into exploring filling in some of their vacancies via this route.

How the university paradigm might change

Some experts say that employers will hire more apprentices than graduates in future; others, that graduates will remain valuable and continue to be the largest bulk of hires. Either way, in order to continue to attract students and ensure employability and maintain their revenues, universities may need to adapt by providing full programmes of work experience that are no longer optional.

If the trend continues, it is possible that the university paradigm changes radically in the 21st century. If going to university already started to lose its perceived value at the beginning of this century (if we solely view going to university as a means to gaining employment), things could change even further.

I imagine three future scenarios:

Scenario 1: Universities will position themselves as places for reflection and knowledge acquisition without fully embedding the offer of work experience. In this scenario, not far from today’s situation, graduates could differentiate themselves from apprentices by demonstrating that the fundamentals of their learning experience, such as the ability to think critically and holistically, can be applied in any situation and be long-lasting, as opposed to practical skills which need constant recycling. The current curricula will also adapt to reflect a better application of graduates’ high level skills.

Scenario 2: Universities will strengthen their work experience programmes by engaging with employers from their local communities who offer work or volunteering opportunities. They will also develop internal programmes where key skills, such as managing projects or solving challenges, are practised. Universities will improve their career services to better engage their students who will respond by participating in more work placements, ultimately becoming more employable. This is a vision for many of today’s universities but, for most, there is a lot to do to get there.

Scenario 3. Universities will fully embrace the offer of work experience. Work placements will be mandatory for all students and fully integrated with the study experience. Thus, if more apprentices go to university, apprentices and regular students come together as one group with the only difference that some will have a degree paid by an employer and some not. This might in turn have unintended outcomes such as social competition among the two, but also positive consequences as more students will want to become apprentices to avoid the debt,  helping to close the skills gap in return.

How will students feel?

Whichever scenario plays out, if the trend continues and one day apprentices do overtake graduates in terms of volume of hires, the level of disappointment graduates will experience no doubt will impact on their mental health.

Most students know today that guaranteed jobs as a result of a degree is a thing of the past, and yet they were told when young that a degree still offered them the very best chances in life.  Thus, they persevered. If 48 per cent (as per our survey with university students) already claim to be ‘anxious’ or ‘very anxious’ about their futures, this problem is only likely to grow. This can be prevented, however, if the key players in the work and education eco-system collaborate to develop better guidance and pro-active support for students to better manage their career choices.

Winners and losers

Despite the risk of massive student disappointment, I still believe that if indeed employers are changing the university paradigm, the consequences for everyone will only be positive in the long term. To compete with apprentices, students will be more focused on getting work experience and therefore be more employable following graduation.  Apprentices will also have more opportunities and possibly the chance of getting a degree. Universities will adapt to offer more practical curricula that will help them be more competitive for students and also may have more apprentice-students and therefore maintain or even grow their revenue streams. Employers will benefit from using the practical skills they need in order to grow, improving their talent management strategies. Society overall will benefit due to the overall economic growth as a result of employers higher growth.

This will not happen however unless there is closer collaboration between employers and universities and there is a move away from organisational self-interests to benefit everyone.

If you are interested in this topic and feel like debating it with like minded professionals, join our Facebook or Linked In fan pages to post your comments.

If you care about the skills gap, download my free whitepaper ‘Putting Young People back into Work‘ which offers 10 solutions designed to eliminate this problem once and for all.

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