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Making a breakthrough
Apprenticeships, the solution

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Around the world, apprenticeships are increasingly being seen as a solution to the problems of youth unemployment and skills shortages.

A global skills gap is having a profound effect on organisations everywhere, but defining its origins can be difficult. Some CEOs have deemed it the result of an education system that has failed to prepare young people for working life. The media, on the other hand, has often described it as a symptom of employer efforts to shift the burden of training employees on to academia rather than investing in it themselves.

The consensus is that apprenticeships could hold the key to bridging the gap.

However, the opportunities they present are not open to young people in all parts of the world. In the US, for example, the system of apprenticeships is in turmoil, as both economic and political dynamics are paradoxically both discouraging and, to a lesser degree, encouraging apprenticeships, says Wayne Brockbank, Clinical Professor of Business at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

He explains: “Many job categories are shrinking because of technological advances. We see this in agriculture and manufacturing, where large-scale machines and robotics are replacing low-end workers who might have traditionally been trained through apprenticeships. Furthermore, the economic expectations embedded in the US educational system are working against apprenticeships.”

Education isn’t everything

In the short term, Brockbank adds, many companies may continue to spend on training entry-level employees whose college education failed to prepare them to hit the ground running. In these companies, apprenticeships in the form of on-the-job training are likely to continue as an adjunct to college coursework.

The picture is very different in Europe, most notably in Germany, where the apprenticeship scheme, or Ausbildung, has been popular for more than 50 years.

Nick Barniville, Associate Dean of Degree Programmes at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin, says: “Unlike many other countries, there is no stigma attached to choosing a vocational path.”

Taste the opportunity

Opportunities exist in virtually every industry sector of the UK, including its café culture. Starbucks launched its apprenticeship programme there in 2012, offering young people a foot on the first rung of the ladder of a retail management career and the chance to build transferable skills.

Almost half of Starbucks’ employees, or ‘partners’, are under the age of 24, so fall within the age group facing the most significant challenges around employment. Lisa Robbins, HR Director UK, says: “Apprentices are part of our business from day one. They earn the same rate of pay and benefits as any other partner and are guaranteed employment upon successful completion of the programme.”

Engineering is another sector feeling the pressures of skill shortages. With London’s population set to grow from 8.6 million today to 10 million by 2030, significant investment in infrastructure will be needed to keep the capital working and growing.


Graduates in softer disciplines, such as fine arts and social sciences, are finding themselves ill-equipped to enter the world of work.


Crossrail is a new rail line that will connect east and west London via 26 miles of new tunnels under the capital. As part of its delivery strategy, the company has committed to provide 400 apprenticeships through its supply chain over the lifetime of the project. That target was exceeded in January this year, when 460 apprentices were working in a range of trades and professions.

Failure to recognise the role apprenticeships can play in creating sustainable skills pipelines has implications for the next generation of employees. As Brockbank points out, in an increasingly technologically sophisticated and dependent world of work, graduates in softer disciplines, such as fine arts and social sciences, are finding themselves ill-equipped to enter the world of work.

So what can policymakers elsewhere in the world learn from Germany, where the apprenticeship system could be seen as a blueprint for sustainable skills development?

ESMT’s Barniville says: “The key seems to be the involvement of all stakeholders in the framework design, and also changing the mind-set of people to make it acceptable to choose a vocational career path, rather than assuming that everyone should have the ambition to go to university.”


About this author

Barney Ely HR director

Barney Ely, Director at Hays Human Resources, Hays UK & Ireland

Barney is responsible for the human resources recruitment business at Hays, leading a team of 80 recruiters in 40 locations across the UK.

Barney joined Hays in 1993 as a business graduate and has spent much of his career recruiting for blue-chip organisations and SMEs. In addition to now leading the HR recruiting business, Barney also has operational responsibility for offices across the South of England. He has responsibility for teams placing professionals in over 20 industry sectors, from accountancy and finance to construction, IT, marketing and education.

Barney is an active partner to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), sitting on the panel for the CIPD People Management Awards.

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