Springfords LLP blog

Some news, views and comments about everything and anything, relevant and irreverent.

Apprenticeship, university degree or both?

19 March 2015

Is it better to spend three or four years in further education, or is the best preparation for the world of work a spell in the school of hard knocks.  Today, the decision is not quite as clear cut.

Roll back the economic carpet half a century and the choices were threadbare.  For almost everyone, there was the university of life - in a service or industrial apprenticeship of up to seven years or more.  For a vanishingly small elite there was also the chance of a university degree course, with the sort of education of which most could hardly ever dream. 

Today, the weave of opportunities is vastly different.  We need to modernise our idea of an apprenticeship as a divergence from learning and education.

No longer is it all about making endless cups of tea and the sort of indignities meted out to The Slab Boys.  Today’s equivalent of an apprenticeship is far removed from the dungeon-like confines of John Byrne’s celebrated stage play.  A  modern apprenticeship is a genuine choice for youngsters coming into the workplace.  Back in the days of mixing dye in the slab room of a carpet manufacturer, the thought of a university education was fantasy in the minds of Phil, Spanky and Hector - the titular Slab Boys. 

Fifty years later, and far from being the condemnation of the working masses, an apprenticeship is a sought after career move.  They’re more difficult to obtain than a place at Oxford said chief executive Ian Livingston, talking to the Guardian recently about places on BT’s degree apprenticeship scheme.

The telecom giant is among the early big business partners for what the UK government calls the Degree Apprenticeship.  The scheme, initially aimed at the digital and creative industries, is designed to let young people gain a full honours degree while earning a wage and - crucially - while paying no fees.

What’s not to like?  The young workers learn on the job in the traditional sense, and get classroom based tuition as well in a vocationally relevant degree subject, complete with the opportunity to put learning into immediate practice.  That might be a bit risky if it were learning to fly an airliner or operate a nuclear power station, but in the non-lethal environment of computer aided design, what’s the worst that can happen - you end up with a badly computer controlled mixing slab and your carpet ends up rather more avant-garde than hoped for, and the apprentice walks away with a PhD in brewing darjeeling with milk and two sugars.

As reported in the Evening Standard in London, the Independent Centre for Economics and Business Research claims that apprenticeships contributed £34bn to the UK economy in 2014, and that figure will grow, in real terms, three-fold by 2050.

While the Degree Apprenticeship scheme was initially launched at the digital economy, the concept is gaining traction in other professional sectors, including law and accountancy.  That’s helping win over the parents of school leavers too.  According to a recent survey by The Association of Accounting Technicians, over half of parents now think apprenticeships can offer the same professional opportunities, and financial rewards, as traditional academic routes.

A university degree course may be accessible to many more ambitious individuals these days, but it may still not be the right choice for everyone.  The modern message is that, even the likes of Phil, Spanky and Hector could look forward to a career that embraces industry and academic achievement and, far from cuttin’ a rug for the rest of their lives, they could be cutting a dash on the management floorboards too.


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Some news, views and comments about everything and anything, relevant and irreverent.

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