Of course there will be teething troubles as the levy kicks in, but current developments in the apprenticeships arena – the most significant overhaul of the system for more than 30 years – have to be warmly welcomed. Anything that significantly enhances employability, work readiness and job prospects must be good.

Many of today’s senior industry leaders will say that they owe it all to what they learned as an apprentice. Apprenticeships are already in the DNA of industries like engineering, but one of the most positive outcomes of these new initiatives will be their becoming the norm in all industries, professions and sectors.

But – and there’s always a but – there are dangers of which we must be aware.

Sir Dominic Cadbury’s line, that “there is no such thing as a career path; there is only crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself”, so effectively encapsulates what has happened to the pattern of working life in recent decades. People are forced to navigate an extremely complex and confusing path which, almost invariably, has no clear signposts.

Work experience is important to successful navigation, whether it’s paid or unpaid. Apprenticeships are a powerful and influential form of work experience, but they are not the only one.

Getting it right is a win-win-win

My first concern is that, in all the frenzy currently surrounding apprenticeships, and the resources their implementation will demand, other types of work experience will get less attention than they merit. Placements (from the traditional five days for year 10 students to the incoming three-month placements for 16- to 19-year-olds in technical education), traineeships, internships and volunteering that leads to employment are all immensely important.

Traineeships have an especially key role to play as a lead-in, pre-apprenticeship programme. One could consider placements, internships and volunteering as being primarily about “soft skills” and getting to understand the working environment – whereas traineeships can be considered more “sleeves-rolled-up” preparation for a job in a specific sector.

Unemployed young people who have little or no work experience and who have not yet achieved a full level three qualification are going to find the job hunt especially hard. They’re also unlikely to be ready to fully capitalise on an apprenticeship. Traineeships help to bridge that experience and skills gap, as well as adding capacity to employers, and to send the learners on the path to employment or an apprenticeship.

Work experience that begins as early as possible (and I’d like to see it start with 11-year-olds) and continues throughout a young person’s educational and personal development, taking some people right through to a degree apprenticeship, is a hugely powerful navigational tool for those learners on careers’ crazy paving.

For employers, it represents a genuine talent pipeline that has significant bottom-line benefits, alongside CSR merits. These range from cutting recruitment costs to providing invaluable management experience and raising both the morale and productivity of an existing workforce.

Getting it right is a win-win-win for learner, employer and learning provider – and ultimately for our economy and society.

Work experience is a hugely powerful navigational tool for those learners on careers’ crazy paving

But it is pointless if the work experience, in whatever form, is not undertaken by all parties at the highest possible quality. And that’s my other concern.

In focusing on meeting numerical targets and ensuring that levy contributions are fully used, there’s a risk of corners being cut and apprenticeships not being carried out thoroughly enough. The new standards, if devised correctly, will be an invaluable guide to getting it right, but success will be absolutely dependent on everyone involved being committed to quality.

So, as the apprenticeships momentum gathers pace, let’s not overlook other forms of work experience, which are vital elements, both in learners’ pathways and employers’ talent pipelines and, above all, let’s not jeopardise quality as we strive for quantity.


Rod Natkiel will be running a workshop called ‘Creating a talent pipeline for the future’ at AAC2017

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