Executive Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd
Apprentices, apprentices, apprentices

For many employers, a degree is the baseline requirement for anyone looking to get a foot through their doors. On countless career paths, that piece of paper earned after several years of undergraduate study, is the necessary first step. With 2018 figures showing that just shy of 50% of people now pass through university it’s not surprising that this is the case. However, it was not that long ago, the early 1960s to be exact, that only four per cent of school leavers went on to tertiary education. Of course, there are many reasons for this upsurge in people waving pieces of expensive paper towards any employer that will pay attention, but the poster boy for increased take-up of university education is, in the mind of many, Tony Blair. In 1999, as Prime Minister, he pledged that half of young people would attend higher education; numbers of students in higher education have risen rapidly since.

By and large, it is fairly unquestioned that degrees provide school leavers with advanced transferable skills. One study, undertaken by the University of Oxford, concluded that modern governments believe that universities are the best place to give young workers the skills to meet the needs of occupational life. This isn’t to say that there aren’t grumbles about cost, accessibility and the benefit to employers that universities provide. Rising student debts – circa £50,000 for a three-year degree course – have caused backlash against the affordability of higher study, particularly for those from poorer backgrounds. The modern workplace is changing rapidly too – with some complaining that universities aren’t giving young people the skills they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.

But if there is criticism about the benefits, and take-up, of university education – currently it is just noise; UCAS data shows that 2018 was a record year for university applications – what could replace a pathway to work that young people, hiring managers and recruiters are all bought into? Well, some research suggests that apprenticeships are now starting to gain traction – with growing numbers of school leavers increasingly concerned about the feasibility and benefits of going to university. CV-Library found that almost three-quarters of Brits would now opt to do an apprenticeship over a degree. The job board’s survey also highlighted that more than half of Brits believe that apprenticeships are better for a person’s career prospects than the traditional higher education route – with nine in ten of those polled believing that an apprenticeship can provide school leavers with the necessary skills to succeed in their chosen career path without accruing a mountain of debt.

The Government, too, is interested; providing funding for employers to take on apprentices, of any age, via Levy funding. There are also studies which attempt to show the benefits for employers. The Employer Guide to Apprenticeships published figures which found that an established apprenticeship programme reported a 76% spike in productivity. Could it be that apprenticeships are the silver bullet for the oft-cited productivity and skills gap crisis; a crisis that recruiters will have to face in most of their working days? Euan Blair certainly thinks so, which is why Recruitment Grapevine went to his firm’s offices to find out if apprenticeship schemes are something that hiring managers should be providing and recruiters should be looking to get talent onto. As a Co-Founder of WhiteHat, which places school leavers into apprenticeship schemes and trains them in a range of skills, it’s not surprising that he is hoping to spread the message, to both young people and employers, that the apprentice route is one that can solve skills gap issues. Additionally, Euan explains that apprenticeships can help solve diversity problems and work accessibility issues, whilst also providing top-notch training. He also believes that today people can bypass the need for university certification as well as the shackles of graduate debt.

 

I started my career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley. It's a brilliant place to work and I worked alongside people I really liked. Ultimately finance wasn't what really excited me though, I cared more about education and employment and particularly with how disconnected the two often are from each other. I was also very conscious of the fact that lots of people were unable to get access to the opportunities I'd benefitted from due to the system not working as it should; over half of all people on graduate schemes are educated at private schools for example and only four per cent of people claiming free school meals make it to a Russell Group university, and so university is failing a diverse generation of great talent when it comes to reaching some of the best careers. I left finance to join an organisation helping long-term unemployed people find work and it was a complete transition from the world I'd been working in previously. We were supporting people back into work who had been out of the labour market for many years in places ranging from Coventry to Harlesden. But the problem we had was we were often reaching people when they had already built up huge barriers to re-entering the workforce and I wanted to start working with people much earlier. My Co-Founder Sophie was also fixated on how to solve the problems we'd both seen with the current system, and so WhiteHat was born out of a shared desire to build an outstanding alternative to university as an on-ramp for a diverse group of young people to access the best careers.

I started my career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley. It's a brilliant place to work and I worked alongside people I really liked. Ultimately finance wasn't what really excited me though, I cared more about education and employment and particularly with how disconnected the two often are from each other. I was also very conscious of the fact that lots of people were unable to get access to the opportunities I'd benefitted from due to the system not working as it should; over half of all people on graduate schemes are educated at private schools for example and only four per cent of people claiming free school meals make it to a Russell Group university, and so university is failing a diverse generation of great talent when it comes to reaching some of the best careers. I left finance to join an organisation helping long-term unemployed people find work and it was a complete transition from the world I'd been working in previously. We were supporting people back into work who had been out of the labour market for many years in places ranging from Coventry to Harlesden. But the problem we had was we were often reaching people when they had already built up huge barriers to re-entering the workforce and I wanted to start working with people much earlier. My Co-Founder Sophie was also fixated on how to solve the problems we'd both seen with the current system, and so WhiteHat was born out of a shared desire to build an outstanding alternative to university as an on-ramp for a diverse group of young people to access the best careers.

Despite studying at Bristol and Yale University, Euan is a firm believer that apprenticeships allow school leavers to get “stuck into a career at the early levels”. This belief encouraged him to co-found his firm alongside Sophie Adelman in 2016. Together, they aim to challenge the assumption that university is the best route into work. “WhiteHat was a response to this ingrained assumption that university was essential as a route into the best careers,” Euan explains. Working with clients such as Google, Warner Bros, SalesForce and Investec, Euan and Sophie aim to match non-graduate talent with apprenticeship opportunities at companies offering school leavers quality training.

 

Yet, whilst the pair earnestly believe in the transformative power of apprenticeships – Euan explains that they were only meant to meet for a quick coffee after his wife heard Sophie speak at an event but they ended up drawing up business plans and brainstorming ideas for three hours when they met, the result of their shared enthusiasm – there is still resistance to this route into work. In 2018 FE News reported on research that showed 37% of parents still viewed apprenticeships as a ‘last resort’ for their child. But Euan and Sophie are eager to challenge this negative perception and prove that apprenticeships are, in some ways, a better route into employment. “You have so many macro factors that make apprenticeships so essential, from the diversity and equality aspects but also from the way that people access learning and the fact that, everywhere, higher education is many times more expensive than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” Euan adds. However, Sophie admits that before the apprenticeship route can become truly successful there needs to be a mindset shift in society.

“One group that can be a little bit resistant to taking on an apprenticeship is parents – because there is always the aspiration that their child goes to university and it’s the cultural norm that your child goes to university,” Sophie explains. The second group is line managers because they are so used to recruiting graduates. “Most hiring managers in the companies that we’re dealing with went to university. Employers look at university as a pre-filter and say that these people came through a certain academic route with a certain level of achievement which means that they are a safe hire,” she adds.

There also may be the perception that apprentices are less mature than graduates because they are fresh out of school, but Euan dubs this “the fallacy of lazy assumptions”. “We placed an apprentice a few weeks ago who worked in a pub as an assistant manager. She was dealing with suppliers, dealing with accounts, negotiating with people, managing shifts and rotas and had also tutored her younger brother through his GCSEs but [is perceived to be less mature] than an Ancient History graduate from Bristol, (like me), and this just doesn’t make any sense,” he bemoans. Sophie adds that once these barriers are broken down, the benefits of apprenticeships will become more recognisable – especially to employers who want to see how ready-for-work these candidates are.

 

I think broadly Brexit is – and I don’t think it’s a positive thing overall – but it’s positive at least for apprenticeships in the sense that people are realising ‘What does our system look like when we can no longer import talent or no longer rely on international junior talent?' Instead, we need to be cultivating very strong pipelines here in the UK and within our local communities. Regardless of what happens in the end with Brexit, what is has done is it has made people realise that they can’t rely on the current system staying the same way forever; they are going to have to do something that involves them being able to train and re-skill people as well as just getting the finished article in.

I think broadly Brexit is – and I don’t think it’s a positive thing overall – but it’s positive at least for apprenticeships in the sense that people are realising ‘What does our system look like when we can no longer import talent or no longer rely on international junior talent?' Instead, we need to be cultivating very strong pipelines here in the UK and within our local communities. Regardless of what happens in the end with Brexit, what is has done is it has made people realise that they can’t rely on the current system staying the same way forever; they are going to have to do something that involves them being able to train and re-skill people as well as just getting the finished article in.

Euan tells me that the applied learning aspect from apprenticeships, rather than the theoretical knowledge taught at university, will show businesses that this a way of solving their talent problems. “Employers are increasingly saying that graduates are coming out of university without the skills that they need them to have. WhiteHat was really a response to that demand,” he adds. With the Department of Education’s 2018 Employer Skills Survey showing definitively that the number of skills shortage vacancies have more than doubled to 266,000 since 2011, Euan is adamant that apprenticeships can plug those skills gaps going forwards. “If you look at jobs of the future like data analytics, computer science and machine learning, most universities aren’t well tooled up to teach you how to do well in a functional setting. Apprenticeships can be a very useful way of giving you the knowledge and the theoretical piece, actual skills and the experience of building something that employers find valuable.”

Then there is the diversity aspect. With Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) a hot topic in the recruitment space, Euan explains that apprenticeships are able to solve the diversity piece as they can provide opportunities to school leavers from backgrounds which might not usually offer pathways into professional work. Euan is particularly passionate about this. Earlier in his career, he had a ten-week internship at investment bank Morgan Stanley which made him aware of inequalities in the employment world. “I was working with people who were all pretty much white, all middle-class, nearly all male, and they’d come from the same backgrounds. They had no divine right to be doing these jobs but the system was geared so only they could get them. I was very conscious of the fact that there were a lot of people that had access to opportunities and a lot of people who didn’t.”

 

As it stands, students from disadvantaged areas are more likely to drop-out, less likely to gain higher grades or find graduate employment compared to their peers. There is also a disconnect between some of the top universities and some of the least affluent areas. Access to education and work is something which WhiteHat are actively contributing to. “Half of the apprentices we have placed get free school meals, 65% are non-white British and seven per cent are from care leaver or refugee backgrounds,” Euan tells me. He earnestly believes that apprenticeships will help prevent hiring managers from recruiting carbon copies of their graduate selves.

It would be easy to say that Euan’s outlook on university differs from his father’s but that too easily dismisses the different environments they are operating in. Both, on the face of it, believe that the educative route they were, or are currently, pushing – be it apprenticeships or university – is a good way to improve access to employment for those from diverse backgrounds, as well as providing better skills for employers. Both believe in some form of higher education. It’s just that in the current employment environment, Euan believes that apprenticeships are able to create better opportunities for school leavers than universities can. “I think the problem was that at the time [when Tony was Prime Minister] there was this idea that when people go to university, they are going to get access to better opportunities and therefore hopefully, they can deliver better outcomes for them.”