Why apprenticeships are more important than ever

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Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Committee, blogs exclusively for EEF.

National Apprenticeship Week is a chance to celebrate the excellent work that apprentices and employers have been doing all over the country.

It also highlights the importance of apprenticeships and helps to raise the prestige of skills and training.

For too long, vocational education has been looked down on and seen as an undesirable educational route for our young people, who are instead encouraged to embark on a full university degree.

At the same time however, we face a real and growing skills crisis in our country.

More than a third of workers in England do not hold suitable qualifications for the jobs they do and around nine million working aged adults in England have low basic skills.

Meanwhile, an enormous wave of lost opportunity is about to come crashing down on the next generation of employees, with a third of England’s 16-19-year olds having low basic skills.

28% of jobs taken by 16-24-year olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s and only around 5% of young people are working in STEM, the area most resistant to the risk.

This lack of skills in our society affects us all, but it is the most disadvantaged who pay the highest price by slipping in to a concoction of wage stagnation, fading hope and inertia.

If this is to change, we must raise the esteem vocational and skills training is held in and apprenticeships have a major role to play.

The current obsession with full academic degrees in this country must end. There are just not the jobs available for the graduates and the return on investment for some of these students is paltry.

Instead, we should rebalance higher education and redirect some of the public funding universities receive to those courses with a technical focus.

The Government has announced a review of university funding and should take the opportunity to do all it can to incentivise more skills-based courses and technical offerings.

No longer should there be a divide between technical and academic education and there must be closer links between further and higher education. They should be seen as intertwined – two parts of the same system of self-improvement and both equally well supported.

Degree apprenticeships are a remarkable example of a vehicle that blends the two together and could be the crown jewel in a revamped technical offering.

Students earn as they learn, they do not incur mountains of debt, and they get good quality jobs at the end.

They are not only offering students value for money but also the taxpayer and are helping us meet the country’s skills gap and providing a ladder of opportunity for our most disadvantaged young people to thrive in their future careers.

More universities should follow the recent example of Cambridge University and offer these apprenticeships. There are currently just 11,600 degree apprenticeships. I hope that one day, half of all students will be studying them.

Not enough families currently know about degree apprenticeships, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where the returns could be most profound. Both the existence of apprenticeships and the value they bring should be hard-wired into careers advice.

As we celebrate National Apprenticeship Week and the good work already being done by many, let’s use it to showcase the huge benefits to all of apprenticeships and ensure everyone has the chance to learn the skills they need and climb the ladder of opportunity.

You can find out more about what the Education Select Committee is up to here.
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