Kate Maddison-Greenwell, Head of Employability, Skills and Learning for Gi Group challenges some of the confused messages surrounding UK apprenticeships; and highlights the benefits apprenticeships can have both to the individual and businesses.

Over recent months, I have picked my way through numerous blogs, social media posts and press reports on the subject of apprenticeships. A growing theme among them is the ‘futility’ of certain entry-level apprenticeships – while extoling the virtues of degree-level programmes and, increasingly, pitching apprenticeships as a real alternative to university.

While each type of apprenticeship has its merits, it feels like we may have lost sight of the fundamental purpose of apprenticeships.

First steps on the career ladder

Apprenticeships act primarily as a resource designed to bridge the gap between school and work or to help support individuals through a transition in their career. That’s not to say that they can’t support career progression at a higher level. However, I worry that the rise in degree-level apprenticeships owes more to wanting to hit targets and make a profit than it does to genuinely aiding social mobility.

We need to be careful that they don’t become a resource for the few. Not losing sight of the purpose of Apprenticeships is therefore crucial. They should provide the gateway to a qualification, and a step up onto the first rung of the career ladder thanks to hands-on work experience – which is incredibly valuable to someone entering the world of work for the first time or after a career move. Let’s not forget that those who have the prior experience or qualifications to go straight into a L4/5 Apprenticeship may have other opportunities available to them.  For those that would not be accepted onto a L4/5, entering qualifications at a L2/3 can be the only way in.

Challenging perceptions

There is a common misconception that apprenticeships are only for people who have struggled academically. However, the ability of those with no prior qualifications can be hugely underestimated. For young people who may have found school difficult and may, as a result, have few qualifications, an apprenticeship can offer an opportunity to gain the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. There are many reasons why young people may not succeed in a school setting; including social issues, academic ability, lack of parental support or a lack of self-confidence  and belief in themselves. Once they have reached the apprenticeship stage they are likely to be jaded with the notion of further learning and development.

But they are not a lost cause. With the right support they can excel, gain skills and qualifications and develop fulfilling careers. The operative word here is ‘support’. As an example, at Gi Group our trainers work incredibly hard, alongside the apprentice, to offer the further support required to get them through their Functional Skills exams. The results? An 85% first-time pass rate. This shows that no matter the background, or previous academic struggles, the vast majority of apprentices go on to complete the qualification and increase their skillset and prospects of achieving full-time employment.

Added value

Often people overlook the value an apprenticeship can have and therefore fail to see the benefits of investing in apprentices. This is particularly true for entry-level apprenticeships where management may fail to see the positive impact an apprenticeship can have on someone at the start of their career. However, if through an apprenticeship these individuals gain a range of new skills, improved self-confidence and increased social mobility then the value is clear.

No matter which industry, an apprenticeship can help individuals working in entry-level roles gain the skills necessary to go on to become team leaders or managers (even in those sectors where we have recently seen the value of apprenticeships questioned – such as catering, hospitality or childcare). It is therefore crucial that businesses start to see the value of investing in apprenticeships to shape the workforce of tomorrow.

Investing in talent

As a result of the negative connotations around apprenticeships, there is simply not enough support for young apprentices. The difficulty of the transition between school and working life is vastly underestimated and the negative impacts of disillusionment around education and a lack of qualifications needs to be addressed. More support must be available for young apprentices looking to put their past struggles behind them and succeed in their working lives.

Through our own apprenticeship programmes, we have seen first-hand, that if a young person decides to be absent from school, or to not sit an exam, then the only person this affects is themselves. However, if an apprentice is absent from work this also directly affects their team or peers – productivity goes down, relationships are strained, and frustrations occur.

For this reason, employers need to recognise the importance of putting proactive work into limiting these issues and dealing with them as they arise – particularly when mental health issues are involved. We have found that offering helplines, pastoral care, intervention training and occupational health support to our apprentices to help guide them through their journey helps enormously. While this requires some additional outlay in terms of time and money – it is this mutual buy-in which ultimately ensures the success of the apprenticeship both for the individual and the business.

In conclusion:

On closer inspection of the challenges surrounding apprenticeships in the UK it is easy to see why they are an undervalued and misunderstood process. By delving deeper into the issues faced by both the apprentice and the employer, and drawing on  our own experiences both as a training provider and through  our own apprenticeship programmes, we can see that when prioritised and implemented effectively, apprenticeships actually act as an extremely useful tool for closing the skills gap and investing into an untapped talent pool to shape the workforce of the future.


Gi Group offers apprenticeships nationwide up to Level 5 including: Leadership & Management, Lean Operative, Improving Operational Performance, Business Administration, Customer Service, and Supply Chain.  With a 93% apprentice satisfaction rate (independent government survey) and 96% of apprentices progressing to permanent roles, Gi Group are best placed to be able to cover the majority of apprenticeships across your company.  Contact Gi Group on apprentice@gigroup.com or 01246 267928 for more information.

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