Thursday 17 March 2016 1:30 am

Young people need to know the true value of apprenticeships – especially for professional jobs

The UK has a proud history when it comes to apprenticeships, boasting a great tradition in industries such as engineering, construction and manufacturing. However, a lack of effective careers advice is risking the government’s plan to increase apprenticeship uptake in “professional” sectors like accountancy – especially for those young people electing not to go to university.

Unbalanced careers advice

In choosing between heading to university or taking the brave leap into the world of work, young people are making one of the biggest decisions of their lives. Currently, it seems many are doing so without being fully aware of the wide range of options available to them. This week, ACCA has released the findings of a survey that took in the views of 1,000 16 to 18 year olds. Worryingly, 31 per cent of those we asked have received no careers advice about apprenticeships at all.

Schools have long been measured against the number of their students that go to university. The government needs to ensure that careers advisers, schools, employers and Local Enterprise Partnerships work together to give advice on apprenticeships the same level of importance on a consistent basis.

At present, Local Enterprise Partnerships are leading on local skills planning in many regions. The work they do is commendable, and examples of best practice must be shared where they exist. Take Solent LEP for instance. It has developed the Solent Skills Strategy, which sets out opportunities for apprenticeships in collaboration with local education institutions and employers.

Flexibility and skills

For many young people, there is a belief that not only will choosing an apprenticeship leave you earning less than if you’d completed a degree but that it will also make you less able to switch careers. Flexibility is hugely important to the next generation. Young people want the freedom to build portfolio careers as they progress through their working lives, so it is crucial that they know that this is possible if they choose the apprenticeship route.

The range of transferable skills gained through an apprenticeship, such as leadership and project management, and the demand from employers for these skills, must be better communicated to young people. As the government progresses with its apprenticeship programme, we would expect it to use real-world examples to demonstrate the flexibility of apprenticeships to young people. I know from talking to ACCA students undertaking apprenticeships that these case studies are many and positive.

Greater transparency

To address the belief that apprentices will earn less, more transparency is needed from employers so that, where they offer both a graduate and a higher apprenticeship entry scheme, there is parity between the two. Those completing higher apprenticeships must be treated in exactly the same way as a graduate. Greater transparency on the earning potential of apprenticeship routes into professional careers will enable individuals to make better informed decisions on the choices available to them.

The government does have a solid base to build from. Already, 71 per cent of young people believe that apprenticeships are a route into a successful career despite the lack of consistent advice they are receiving. While this is a good sign, an image problem still exists as 61 per cent are under the impression that employers prefer graduates, and 65 per cent say their parents would prefer them to go to university. We have a situation where young people, and their families, seem to be saying that apprenticeships are a positive choice, just perhaps not for them. This needs to change.

Changing perceptions in the professions

The government’s Career Enterprise Company is well placed to change perceptions around apprenticeships. By working with a variety of employers and different professional bodies, it can provide clear information about routes from higher apprenticeships into professional careers.

There are many great examples of major employers offering school leaver routes to a professional career, not least among them accountancy firms. Apprenticeships offer so much potential, so let’s make sure our young people are able to utilise them to move up the professional ladder in whatever career they choose to pursue.

Apprenticeships are well embedded and understood in sectors such as engineering and construction, but more needs to be done to promote apprenticeship routes into other professions. It is no secret that skills shortages are still one of the biggest threats to the future health of the UK economy. Apprenticeship schemes have the potential to tackle these shortages quickly and effectively.

Social mobility

The ever-rising cost of a university education is driving students to consider other paths to employment. The government, employers and indeed professional bodies such as ACCA should shine a light on the routes into the professions that do not require a degree. If a student chooses not to go to university, they should not be artificially barred from entering a profession that they have the talent and ability to serve with distinction. After all, the wider the pool an employer has to choose from, the more likely they are to attract and retain the top talent.

This is also vital for achieving a more socially mobile population and a more diverse workforce. ACCA currently has 455,000 students around the world, 54 per cent of whom are female. Clearing the path for this quarter of a million ambitious, hard-working women is right at the top of our agenda. Achieving a socially mobile, diverse workforce relies heavily on ensuring that consistent careers advice is given to everyone.

Apprenticeships are a vital component in ensuring our future workforce possesses the diverse mix of skills and experience modern businesses demand. It is encouraging that so many young people already see the value of apprenticeships as a worthwhile route into their desired profession but we should not be satisfied with 71 per cent. We have to make sure every young person is alive to the possibilities on offer, and makes a fully informed choice when it comes to their future.