Why degree apprenticeships are a win-win for both sides

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It’s clear what makes higher and degree apprenticeships an attractive option for school leavers. As one student studying for a degree apprenticeship through Pizza Hut put it: ‘It seems too good to be true.’

Degree apprenticeships offer young people the chance to gain traditional qualifications without the heavy financial costs usually attached. Not only are they spared the cost of studying but they can actually earn while doing it. (The only downside, it appears, is that they don’t get to experience the typical ‘student lifestyle’ but even that is not too terrible a loss; their livers will thank them for it in the future).

Perhaps what’s less obvious, at a glance, is what the advantages might be for employers. Why should you pay to train up 18-year olds when you could instead pick them up 3 years later with a nice 2:1 degree already under their belts and pay them less to boot. (Research suggests that Apprentices have higher starting salaries than graduates). Well, there are in fact numerous advantages to consider.

The advantages to home-grown talent

First off, if you’re a large employer who is paying the Levy, you’re going to be spending this money whether you planned to or not, so you may as well get your money’s worth. Perhaps we shouldn’t start here since it’s not so much an advantage as a potentially annoying truth. But still, let’s just put it out there.

Secondly, when you hire a graduate straight out of university, you’re not necessarily getting someone who’s already trained to your satisfaction. You will still need to train them to meet your organisation’s specific needs, to get used to your internal systems, the acronyms and jargon you use, the decision-making structure, your business context, your values and so on and so on.

That is not to say that you should never hire graduates – indeed those poor graduates are really going to need a job in order to pay off all that debt. But it is definitely worth considering the advantages of someone who has gained the same degree from similarly credible universities – albeit over a slightly longer period - while at the same time living and breathing your company and gaining a wealth of practical experience.

In this vein, another advantage to starting your employees on apprenticeships is that they can gain bottom up experience. Many apprenticeship programmes at a higher or degree level incorporate a rotation around the business, starting at the shop floor and working their way up into management functions. This offers a depth of understanding of your business, the way it functions, and its human capital, that a graduate coming in directly at a higher level simply will never have.

Giving you more options

Finally, there’s the fact that Degree apprenticeships are highly competitive. As long as people are aware that your apprenticeship programme exists as an option (marketing and awareness is a subject for another day) you can attract high numbers of really high calibre candidates.

The largest graduate recruiter in the UK, PricewaterhouseCoopers, takes on close to 1400 graduates every year – but also around 200 apprentices. Gaynor Bagley, formerly PwC’s Head of People explains that they don’t want to ‘write off’ the cohort of 18-year olds who don’t want to (or can’t) go to university. Offering apprenticeships widens the pool of talent.[2]

Anecdotally, apprentices often show themselves to be more ambitious, more proactive and take more responsibility for their careers than graduates. You can of course filter candidates around floor standards in literacy and numeracy and so on – but then with a wide pool to select from (PwC attracts 40,000 applications for their 200 positions) you can be picky about finding the right personality and cultural fit.

There is also evidence that apprentices tend to be more loyal, so retention is higher. On average 90% of apprentices remain with their employer upon completion, and 80% of apprentice employers say that they believe hiring apprentices has reduced staff turnover.

The reasons behind this may be many and varied, but as Andy Palmer, President & Chief Executive of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd (who himself began his career at 16-years old as an apprentice) puts it: ‘I’m not sure I can diagnose it but I can only talk about facts. Five years after completion we manage to retain most of our apprentices, which is not always the case with graduates.’

Be the trailblazer

Unfortunately, degree apprenticeships are still few and far between. There are only 23 approved standards for degree level apprenticeships currently. If there isn’t currently a standard for the kind of role you would like to offer within your sector don’t let this put you off, but rather see it as an opportunity to create a Trailblazer group and take a leading role in defining the standard you would like to see.

It might not be a quick and easy thing to do – but weighed up against the time, effort and often disappointment of trying to recruit the right skills into your business it could well be the better path in the end.

Sign up here for our Insight webinar on degree apprenticeships


[1] BBC Radio 4 You and Yours Consumer Affairs programme 21 September 2017

[2] BBC Radio 4 The Bottom Line programme 15 October 2016 

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