Census analysis: How we will build on the apprenticeship surge in popularity

New census data reveals encouraging growth in apprenticeships but sustaining it until the next census requires innovation and adaptability, says Oliver Sidwell

New census data reveals encouraging growth in apprenticeships but sustaining it until the next census requires innovation and adaptability, says Oliver Sidwell

21 Jan 2023, 5:00

New census data shared last week by the Office of National Statistics has revealed apprenticeships were the highest level of qualification for 5.3 per cent of England’s population (2.4 million people). That proportion has nearly doubled since the 2011 census, when only 3 per cent reported an apprenticeship as their highest level of qualification.

In 2011 the option to choose an apprenticeship in the census was also new, highlighting the growing number of people opting for an apprenticeship over full-time college or university. Over the past decade, perceptions of apprenticeships have been transformed. The antiquated belief that apprenticeships were either for tradespeople like plumbers and electricians or those going into manufacturing have been blown out of the water by forward-thinking companies revamping their early careers programmes.

Employers are upskilling people in regional offices through more structured frameworks and training programmes and school leavers who can’t afford or don’t want to go to university are being paid to earn and learn. It’s been a remarkable turnaround in perceptions since the last census and the feedback from apprentices backs up the value of these courses.

Research from over 6,000 reviews on RateMyApprenticeship in 2022 shows apprentices rate their experiences an astonishing 8.4/10 on average. A mammoth 97% of apprentices who use the service would recommend their scheme to a friend. But for the apprenticeships sector to sustain this upward trend in uptake, three factors will be crucial: quality, innovation and adaptability.

Apprentices have consistently rated their experiences between 8.1 and 8.4 out of 10 over the past five years. Employers and training providers (at least those being reviewed) are doing an exceptional job of ensuring apprentices are gaining from their experiences. As the number of providers and learners grow, competition must drive quality up, not down. And it must be seen to do so to encourage even greater numbers of school leavers to choose an apprenticeship route to qualification over more traditional routes.

The future lies in collaboration, not competition

Which brings us to innovation. It’s not a matter of academic vs vocational or universities vs employers anymore. Seeing universities open their doors to support degree apprenticeship training shows that the future lies in collaboration, not competition.

And there’s plenty of scope for development. With well-documented issues across the healthcare industry, Health Education England recently launched a new medical doctor degree apprenticeship. Initiatives like this, solving today’s real problems and creating 200 new roles for apprentices to train as doctors over the next two years show what’s possible.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a rise in the volume of sustainability apprenticeships within environmentally conscious businesses. Today’s young people are extremely climate-conscious, so this is a perfect example of using apprenticeships to match employer demand with workforce supply. AstraZeneca are currently recruiting for a global sustainability level 4 apprenticeship. The advert is a testament to this desire for change: “We truly value early talent– their thoughts, ideas and contributions,” it reads. “Throughout the programme, you’ll be encouraged and inspired to speak up, have a voice and make an impact.”

Similarly, forward-thinking employers are using apprenticeships as an avenue to bring digitally savvy young people into social media roles. In 2011, 4Studio’s advert for a social media apprentice to ‘coordinate, manage and build Channel 4’s social media presence across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok’ would have been nearly unimaginable. That was the year Snpachat was launched, and Tik Tok was still 5 years away.

While that’s a sign of the incredible progress that’s been made, it also stands as a warning to apprenticeship providers and those developing industry standards. There’s no telling what the jobs market will look like in another decade, and challenging the out-dated myths around apprenticeships must also mean not allowing new ones to form.

But the biggest challenge of the next ten years is surely capacity. With more people looking to choose the apprenticeship route over full-time study, the next census will show one thing above all else – whether we have seized the opportunity to bridge the gap between work and education, and ushered in a true culture of collaboration to deliver the skills our economy needs.

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