Out With the New, In With the Old: Are We Witnessing the Re-Emergence Of the Apprenticeship, Or Just its Watering Down?

>> Saturday, June 8, 2013

We are living in the days of the university; at least we were before the huge rise in tuition fees came along and made attendance at an institution of higher education an unaffordable and unreachable goal for many families.

From 1995 to 2008 the UK's university population doubled, with as many as 40% going into higher education, up from 20%. The numbers are unsurprisingly skewed when it comes to class; in London's upmarket boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington, the figure for young people attending university is closer to the 80% mark.

Unaffordable Fees?

There is obvious outrage at the raising of fees that puts those on average or lower incomes out of the running for places; especially after the huge boost in the last twenty years of university goers and the importance government and the education system seems to place on degrees. There is a question, however, over just how necessary holding a degree is to securing a bright and profitable career.

Figures show that at the end of 2011 almost 19% of those who had graduated in the previous two years were unemployed and 33% of those who had graduated in the last six years were in low-skilled, poor-income jobs. Obviously with so many holding a degree the value has been reduced. Add to this the fact that the majority of degrees are in the arts, a notoriously low-paid work sector, and you begin to see that perhaps holding a degree isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Why do Schools Encourage Further Education?

Schools love it when their pupils go to university. They reference the numbers of their pupils who are admitted with beaming pride, and use those figures as an indicator of their unquestionable success as a learning establishment.

They seem to blindly usher their pupils onto a university application conveyor belt, polishing their smiley young faces as they move along the production line towards higher education while loudspeakers blare the words 'university good!' until it sinks in without question.

 We should be asking some hard questions now:
·         If the market for degrees is so saturated are they becoming increasingly obsolete?
·         If so many degree holders are unemployed after three or four years of hard studying is this the best career path?
·         If they are going to be landing themselves in thousands of pounds worth of debt they will likely struggle to pay back is this a practical choice?
·         What other options should pupils consider?

Other Options

The other options I talk of are entrance into the labour market, and apprenticeships, though after so much weight and grandeur is placed on the holy and exalted degree, pupils are unsurprisingly viewing these 'other options' (not a very catchy or glamorous title for a life choice is it?) as second best. It is also often difficult for young pupils to correctly assess their strong and weak points.

A kid might be infinitely better suited to hands on, interactive learning (a large proportion of us favour learning this way), but see that the mere mention of university puts a smile on the teacher's and family's faces, and seems to be the golden key to the lock of life. He can go three years without applying himself in the direction best suited to him, and end up with a low-skilled job he could have gotten without the degree, along with a mountain of debt.

The Re-Emergence of the Traditional Apprenticeship?

The apprenticeship is a long tradition that has secured skilled work and enduring careers for the youth of Britain long before the degree found prominence amongst the masses. For those that opt into it and learn a trade in detail from the ground up, they are finding themselves considerably better off than a huge proportion of degree holders. Blair's government finally began to take note of this, and started building the case for the apprenticeship once again, something that the current coalition has continued, but to what extent? The figures, upon first inspection look good – around a 70% increase in apprenticeships since the last election.

However, on closer scrutiny the numbers aren't so promising. The notion we have of the apprenticeship as an in-depth learning tool alongside on-the-job experience in a skilled trade seems to account for only one in ten of these so-called apprenticeships, with the other figures spoken for by schemes set up by the service and retail sector, hospitality and catering.

These apprenticeships are mostly level one and two.  This means that the apprentice often only receives a couple of hours a week of off-the-job learning, as opposed to the ten hours a level three apprentice can put down his Bosch multi-tool blades to enjoy. These lower-level 'apprenticeship' schemes receive incentives from government who fund them and are happy to boast the impressive looking figures of increased apprenticeships without providing schemes that enable participants to really benefit and prop themselves up into a well-paid, skilled career.

So companies benefit from a grant, government benefits from impressive figures, but the apprentice winds up in the same, relatively low-skilled work he would have found anyway, with only marginally greater opportunity for advancement. It seems like the apprenticeships of old aren't back to their former glory, which is a sad state of affairs given the other options of low-reward, high-cost degrees and the low-appeal entry level job market school-leavers now face.

Author Bio

William Bancs is a builder by trade who takes on level 3 apprentices who learn how to properly use the full range of Bosch Multitool Blades on their way to becoming fully qualified tradesmen.


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This blog talks about everything about career, job and human resource. It also shares about hobbies, sports and travel. Several years in corporate world taught me a lot of things about life and work and I'm sharing all of these here.

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