Home Truths and Higher Apprenticeships

Full time higher education minus a defined career outcome has become an unaffordable and unjustifiable luxury for many.  Meanwhile, research from the HR communications space is starting to suggest that getting your offspring in to a ‘good’ university is no longer the parental aspiration it once was.  A higher apprenticeship, where participants hit their early 20’s with equal or greater academic qualifications to their full time university-educated peers (but with the benefit of a solid career trajectory and a healthy income) seems an incredibly logical choice to make. Yet there’s a lot of noise out there from employers saying they’re struggling to find the caliber and diversity of talent they need for the top-end STEM related apprenticeships.

My elder daughter recently went to university. Many of her friends were precisely the sort of people major employers would want to attract to their firms at age 18, so it seemed like a great opportunity for a bit of vox-pops research (I am lucky to have a child with friends that occupy the ‘pro-education, chatty with parents’ cohort). So what might be holding them back from applying for these positions?

  • Lack of a prestigious qualification: A student intending to study aeronautical engineering felt he would only achieve his potential at a Russell Group university. The fact that in three years’ time he would probably be in a less advantageous place career wise with his intended employers (and certainly worse off financially) did not seem to bother him.  The old thinking of ‘go to a top university, work for a top company’ held firm.  His intended career destinations provided degree-level study as part of their apprenticeships, but not at institutions as high-status as he wanted to attend.
  • Lack of community: Many young people still go to university for the experience. This includes the diversity of social interactions and the opportunity to pursue interests and activities that life has not yet afforded them the opportunity to do.  Employers struggle to offer this when even the largest are realistically only going to hire a relatively small cohort of talent to each of their locations.
  •  Lack of welfare: Following on from the previous point, universities invest heavily and are assumed to provide a welfare safety net for their students.  When hiring organisations have (and are content to hire from) local talent this is not much of an issue – young people will likely have the option of relying on their old networks for social and practical support.  For applicants relocating this is not the case. They are away from home for the first time and there’s nobody to catch them. Call this a first world problem if you will, but transitioning in to adulthood inside the closeted confines of a campus university seems a much safer bet than moving half way across the country to an unknown area.
  • Lack of careers advice: Sixth form and FE colleges still fixate on university entrance rates as a mechanism to attract new student. Every Spring, the local sixth forms in my town proudly hoist up banners declaring how many of their students make it to top universities. Are the careers teams being deliberately blind to the needs of our young people and guiding them towards what looks best for attracting new pupils to the school as opposed to what is best for the life chances of the student? The experience of my daughter and her friends seems to be that apprenticeships were suggested only to those students that were not academic high-fliers.

Research in to attraction in the apprenticeship space is still in its infancy. By virtue of its target participants, it presents challenges that are different to those in conventional graduate recruitment.  If you can think of any other reasons high performing students are not swamping the inboxes of higher apprenticeship providers, please let me know in the comments section.

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