19 October 2015

In March, skills minister Nick Boles said: “I want every young person leaving school to view university degrees and high-level apprenticeships as different, but equally valid choices.”

Whilst at the time, this was undoubtedly the case, I can’t help but revisit the message today as Ofsted announce a new report showing that the push to create apprenticeships quickly has devalued their brand.

apprentices at UKFast

The first raft of apprentices to join the UKFast team in 2013.

Whilst Nick Boles added today that the report provides further evidence for the government’s decision to put employers rather than training providers in the driving seat – with which I couldn’t agree more – I have to question whether it is this rush to create more apprentices that has done damage to the apprentice brand.

Back in the days of the Labour government, Blair’s push for young people to go to university, placed degree education as the ultimate point on the horizon. Graduates were viewed as a higher echelon, leaving apprentices as the ‘poor man’s’ working substitute.

With that, it seems that, rushed or not, apprenticeships became viewed by businesses as a way to benefit from cheap labour with poor quality apprenticeship schemes that offer no real value to the apprentice. This period seems to have caused a ripple effect that has seen apprentices as the tea makers and errand runners.

How sad.

Back in 2013, when we launched our apprenticeship scheme, I wanted to make it clear to the journalists who asked us about the launch that we are not the usual apprenticeship provider. I said back then how disappointed I had been to hear so many businessmen describing apprenticeships as a way to pay low wages for high outputs.

On the one hand we’re talking constantly about the skills gap in the tech industry but on the other we’re describing apprentices as undervalued. That makes no sense to me.

Apprentices are an amazing way for businesses to take education into their own hands and tackle the skills gap head on, creating long term value rather than the quick ‘cheap labour’.

Apprentices start their on-the-job education immediately. Our apprentices are already fully fledged members of the team – offering live support to clients, working on huge building refurb projects and earning a real wage and real education. They’re an invaluable part of the company and our continued investment into their development is returned tenfold in enthusiasm.

We recently announced that we are now part of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) which is the largest multidisciplinary professional engineering institution in the world and that means that our apprentices become registered members of the Engineering Council as ICT Technicians. Real world qualifications earned in the workplace. For, me that’s how apprenticeships should be.

Don’t get me wrong, we are far from the finished product and are learning every day about training and development and making real changes to the way technology is taught in the UK throughout all stages of education.

With this in mind, I hope that Ofsted’s report acts as an eye-opener for businesses who are still resting on the laurels of the ‘apprenticeship’ name without delivering real value to the apprentice. It is time that more business leaders followed the great examples being set by businesses like Kwik Fit, BAE Systems and Virgin Media.

University costs are spiralling out of control and it is beyond time for us to offer a valid alternative to the degree route to higher education.

What do you think? Are businesses getting better at providing a higher quality apprenticeship?

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