Apprenticeships as the alternative to racking up a ton of debt at university has gained ground in the great ‘where to go after school’ debate, but until parents are reassured with a defined career path, many will be reluctant to encourage their youngsters to pursue this route immediately after GCSEs.
So as we head into National Apprenticeship Week (14-18 March) this week and with this year’s GCSE exams looming, would I be prepared to allow my child to take up an apprenticeship at 16.
The answer is a resounding no.
Am I being too snobbish? Am I completely sold on the government’s drive to academia? Do I think a degree is the only way to get ahead?
No to the first two but possibly yes to the third. With around 40% of youngsters educated to degree level (depending on which data you use), we have made it practically a prerequisite that a degree is needed to progress. Take a look at job ads for professional and managerial roles and a degree is practically mandatory.
You can’t blame parents for encouraging their kids to take a path that’s seemingly more likely to take them along a path which has the lure of a clearly defined career ladder and the suggestion it can be continually climbed, even if does mean they’re in debt to the tune of an average £45k at the age of 21.
Post A Level and the offer of higher apprenticeships is more attractive to parents and their off-spring, university remains a possibility and the opportunity to progress to level 5 or degrees with the employer feels much more tangible. I think it’s hardly surprising that most parents and teenagers stick with the sixth form option at 16.
The automotive retail sector has a long history of apprenticeships with technicians typically taking up three-year apprenticeships after GCSEs. But these apprenticeships take their charges to around level 3 or A level standard. What then? It just stops?
Well no, the Institute of the Motor Industry, the sector’s professional guardian and the organisation which oversees the industry’s qualifications, also delivers a level 5 automotive management qualification.
However, trying to find a defined career path for little Johnny or Jemima who happen to take up a vehicle maintenance apprenticeship once qualified is seriously lacking. How many youngsters progress onto this programme once their apprenticeship has finished, at what age can they begin working towards level 5, what do they have to do to ensure they move onwards and upwards and what reassurances are there from the employer that they will continue to progress their apprentices once qualified?
The automotive retail sector has a fantastic showroom and to a lesser extent, workshop to boardroom heritage which has seen many a sales executive scale the heights of management to find themselves in envious director level positions and even in the seat of the chair. Whilst there are some excellent examples of top directors and CEOs having started their careers as apprentices, they are still not quite as representative in number as their sales counterparts. To some extent, the level 5 automotive management qualification is helping to rectify that, providing a means for employees to move up the management ladder.
According to Steve Nash, CEO of the IMI, the automotive retail sector needs 12,000 apprentices just to stand still . Despite the record numbers of new car registrations and the industry crying out for high calibre school leavers to take on the apprenticeship roles, the number of recruits has stagnated.
Nash identifies part of the problem as being a lack of good careers guidance in schools after the service was axed in 2012 and schools which push their students down the academic route encouraging them to stay on post GCSE with the end goal often being university.
I consider myself an open-minded parent. I was educated to post graduate status and my friends are a real mix of graduates and non-graduates. Both my ex-husband and partner are not graduates. My eldest daughter wants to be a vet so her route to university was inevitable. My middle daughter loves languages and wants to study Mandarin so whilst she has no idea of a career path, uni is the obvious place for her. My son is another matter. He had toyed with a medical career – doctor or paramedic; then engineering was a possibility; now it’s computing.
At the age of 13, he is a potential candidate for an apprenticeship at 16, but I won’t let him take that risk. He will stay in school and he will study STEM subjects and I am hoping he will opt for a higher apprenticeship or, if he’s really lucky (and amazing), a sponsored degree.
The government may be shouting from the rooftops about the creation of more than 2.4 million apprenticeships between 2010/11 and 2014/15 and they have set an even more ambitious target of 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, but us parents want quality not necessarily quantity, although both would be good. Putting higher apprenticeships to one side, they are definitely on my radar even though they only make up 4% of all apprenticeship starts, if we’re talking apprenticeships at GCSE, there needs to be a lot more to persuade me that my 13-year-old should have them on his radar in two years’ time.
If the automotive retail industry wants to attract candidates like my son into apprenticeship positions, they will have to do more to convince us that it offers a clear career development route. Is it time the industry reconsidered its offering, perhaps attracting post sixth form candidates on a higher apprenticeship with clear signposts and direction to eventually achieving the level 5 qualification?
Recent research from the Sutton Trust found those who complete level 5 apprenticeships, that’s degree level and which it refers to as ‘elite’ apprenticeships, are set to earn £50,000 more over their lifetimes than their graduate counterparts who study at non-Russell Group universities.
And therein lies the rub, the Sutton Trust makes the point in its research, the higher earning potential are the preserve of those who undertake the level 5 apprenticeships. Most apprenticeships especially at post 16 are level 3 at best. With no prescribed route taking level 3 qualified automotive apprentices to level 5, parents like me and kids like my son will not be willing to take a gamble on their future careers. Meanwhile, automotive retailers will continue to bemoan the lack of high calibre apprenticeship candidates.