It has always been a myth that there is a crisp dividing line between education and employment. Even people who graduate with five years of further education under their belt usually go on to do more professional training and development throughout their career. Equally, those who make the smoothest transition from education to the workplace have usually built up a strong body of work experience first – whether that is through gap years, part-time work or internships.
However, the perception that there is a solid line between education and work has created huge problems for students, teachers and employers.
For some students, it is difficult to find the motivation to remain in full time education until their early twenties, when their studies seem to lack relevance to the life that they are going to lead in the world of work. Yet often, partly because of parental pressure, they struggle on with an educational route that has little meaning for them. Often, their experience of education is soured, and all because they feel that full-time higher education was the only chance they had to reach their academic potential.
For others, the hardest time comes when they transfer from education to the workplace. I remember the culture shock of moving from full-time education to full-time work, where long academic assignments with generous deadlines were replaced by numerous short, simple tasks that needed prioritising. It took me a long time to realise that in the workplace, performing tasks is only part of the story, and building relationships and negotiating deadlines is just as important.
Apprenticeships simply provide a structure to education and work that many people have already developed for themselves, in dozens of less formal ways and often through a difficult process of trial and error. They allow people coming into the workplace to study and work at the same time, so they can see the relevance of what they are learning to the real world, and gain the insights about workplace culture that you can only get from being a permanent member of a team.
Having worked with apprentices who came to insurance straight from school or college, it is impressive how quickly they shed the label of ‘apprentice’ and start to be thought of purely as a colleague. It is much more of a challenge for an intern or a graduate trainee to gain that level of belonging, because their roles are inherently more transient and project-based.
Financially, apprenticeships are also a low risk option – they do not close off the possibility of taking education on to the highest level, but at the same time they do not require the major financial investment (often involving around £40,000 worth of debt) that goes with full-time higher education.
To make apprenticeships work to their full potential, though, everyone involved has to understand what the real benefits are. Much of the work that we do at the Chartered Insurance Institute to promote the idea of apprenticeships is aimed at making stakeholders aware of the possibilities.
This starts with parents, the people who set the expectations for students that – consciously or unconsciously – will play a part in their education and careers throughout their lives. We hold events throughout the country specifically for parents with year 10-13 students. We know that parents want to understand how apprenticeships are relevant to the world of work, so we hold these events with insurance companies that run both apprenticeship and graduate schemes, so that they can see how each kind of scheme is different, and how each one is valued by employers.
Of course, making apprenticeships work also means making them relevant to students. As far as possible, we work with apprentices themselves to create messages for their peers, using the kind of channels, like Instagram, that are most popular with their age group.
Finally, guidance for employers is essential. As well as bringing employers and apprentices together, we also talk to employers and create tools for them so that they can understand: how the levy works; the factors they should consider when choosing a service provider; how to recruit and enrol apprenticeships as well as aspects of management and training that are particularly relevant to school leavers. We also help employers to share their experiences about apprenticeships with each other, so that they can find a path to best practice for the profession.
For years, students, employees, schools and employers have worked to make the transition from education to the workplace smoother. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy gives everyone the opportunity to turn these ad hoc efforts into a path to employment that is a more structured, simpler and more effective that anything that has existed before.