Let’s be honest, apprenticeships haven’t always enjoyed the best of reputations.
Whenever the subject of apprenticeships is raised, what quickly becomes clear are the (often negative) connotations they carry – that they’re only for low rather than high academic achievers and not suited to the modern knowledge economy.
However, the apprenticeship landscape is shifting and these perceptions are out of date. Gone are the days of entry-level, trade-based schemes. Apprenticeships have been transformed in a bid to drive highly sought after workforce skills – and astute employers are watching with interest.
But how have they evolved?
Believe it or not, apprenticeships date way back to 1563, when the Statute of Artificers (an Act of Parliament) ended the control of guilds. This led to the standardisation of skilled workers that required tradesmen to have seven years’ training to be deemed proficient. Although celebrated at the time, as a way to regulate training and transfer workers between employers, the recent past has been less kind.
Fast-forward to the 1950s and apprenticeships were branded a 'medieval survivor, inappropriate to the systematic teaching of skills in modern technologies', while by the 1960s a Royal Commission unkindly called them 'a farce'. The rhetoric was harsh and not always justified.
During the 1960s, 35% of male school leavers entered apprenticeship schemes – a proportion roughly equivalent to the percentage of trades roles in the UK at that time. But much of the negative commentary was linked to the decline in manufacturing, the rise of new technology and the expansion of university places. Apprenticeship schemes just couldn’t respond quickly enough to these market challenges. Suddenly (and arguably a little unfairly) they fell out of favour. By 1990 the numbers of apprenticeships in employment fell to just 53,000. In 1966 there were 243,700.
Over the last ten years, huge strides have been made in reforming apprenticeships. The 2006 Leitch Review into the skills the UK would need by 2020 really set the ball rolling. It established targets to boost apprenticeships to 500,000 a year by 2020, and the UK Government has enthusiastically taken on this challenge – upping it to a target of three million during this parliament.
What’s changed is that the problems commonly associated with apprenticeships have been tackled. A criticism employers had was the lack of investment in them. Since 2012 however, funding changes mean all who want to be an apprentice (and meet minimum academic standards) can.
Another employer gripe was the proliferation of low-level, poor standard courses that had been allowed to masquerade as apprenticeships. In 2012 however, new minimum standards were introduced requiring all apprenticeships to last at least one year, comprise 30 hours’ employment a week and have a minimum amount of guided learning. Also included was a requirement to offer training in maths and English for apprentices who have not already achieved level 2 (GCSE standard).
Finally, lots of employer criticism centred on apprenticeships simply not being pitched at a high enough standard. Again, this can be debunked. In July 2011 a £25 million Higher Apprenticeship Fund was launched with the aim of creating 20,000 higher apprenticeship places, and only last year it was announced the very term apprentice would now be protected in law. Courses can now only be called apprenticeships if training providers can actually prove the course they run gives a career path equal to higher education.
The fact is apprentices can now gain qualifications ranging from those equivalent to five GCSE passes to those equivalent to a degree. Not surprisingly, increasing numbers of employers are realising this too. They’re experiencing the benefits of being able to recruit a new breed of keen, want-to-learn talent; talent that wants work-based skills and real experience.
Talk to actual apprentice-supporting employers today and their assessments of apprenticeships is in stark contrast to those of yesteryear. Some 82% of employers surveyed in 2014 said they were satisfied with the apprenticeship programme. Now this figure is 90%.This same new data also shows 75% of employers believe apprentices improve productivity or the quality of their products and services.
Last year business secretary Sajid Javid launched Get In, Go Far, a campaign specifically calling on young people to start their career by choosing an apprenticeship. But he also accepted that a key aim of the campaign was to persuade more employers that ‘work-based routes into employment are no longer second best’. Evidence finally that the apprenticeship route has changed beyond all recognition.
If you would like to find out about OU Degree Apprenticeships, then take a look at our Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship, Higher Apprenticeship in Health (Assistant Practitioner) and our Digital and Technology Solutions Degree Apprenticeship.
 The Commission on Apprenticeships, Demos 2015
 The Verdict of Peace – Britain Between her Yesterday and the Future (London: Macmillan, 2001), p. 465.
 Modern Apprenticeships – An Assessment of the Government’s Flagship Training Programme, IoD, 2003
 The TUC’s submission to the Richard Review noted one in five apprentices didn’t receive any recognisable training
 English Apprenticeships – Our Vision Report, 2014