Why young people are being tempted away from taking a university degree

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At the age of 18, Memona Mohammad was all set for university. She had three good, science A levels and offers to study for a degree in biomedical sciences. But she chose to sign up for a higher apprenticeship with BT instead.

Now 21, she will complete the scheme this September. If all goes well,she will have a foundation degree, a level 4 NVQ and the chance to go onto take a master’s, paid for by BT. After three years on a salary, Mohammad has no student loan to pay off and has a job lined up as one of BT’s ethernet planners.

“The guarantee of a job definitely played a part in my decision,” she says.“But it was also the chance to join a global company and develop my career in IT while learning on the job.”

Memona Mohammad BT2
Once considered the preserve of manual trades for the less academically gifted, apprenticeships are now available at three levels, from GCSE to foundation degree, in industries ranging from accountancy to zookeeping.

The number of people starting an apprenticeship grew from 175,000 in 2005/06 to more than 510,000 in 2012/13.

Most are now offered in the service sectors, such as business administration, retail and health. Since 2010, most of those starting apprenticeships have been female.

“We’ve had significant growth over the past decade, although we have probably plateaued at about half a million,” says Karen Woodward, divisional apprenticeship director at the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS). “But while the quantity may have stabilised, we are still seeing an increase in the quality.”

Woodward believes that the growing popularity of apprenticeships is due to their mutual benefit to apprentice and employer. “An apprenticeship is not a training course,” she says. “It’s a job with a salary and an employer with a vacancy.”

Employees who have been apprentices tend to be loyal to their employer and, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, are £214 a week more productive than the average worker.

The flexibility of modern apprenticeships has encouraged employers to increase the number and scope of the schemes they offer. BT now runs 11 different schemes, for example, which will take on more than 700 apprentices this year.

Damian Brown, head of accredited learning and apprenticeships at BT, says: “In the past five years it has become possible to tailor schemes both to the needs of the apprentices and to what we need as a business.”

Apprenticeships are promoted nationally by the NAS, part of the Skills Funding Agency. It supports employers and runs an apprentice“matching service”.

At regional level, a number of local enterprise partnerships have set up“hubs” to promote apprenticeships with local industry and small to medium-sized enterprises.

In Yorkshire, for example, eight local authorities have combined to create the Leeds City Region Apprenticeship Programme, a £4.6m scheme designed to offer 2,500 new apprenticeships by autumn 2015. Similar initiatives are underway in Nottingham, Greater Manchester and the West of England.

Demand for apprenticeships continues to outstrip supply, however: the NAS receives around 12 applications for every position. And despite all efforts to escape their blue collar image, apprenticeships remain far more popular in the former industrial heartlands than in the South East. According to Demos, the think tank, London requires 30,000 more apprentices to catch up with the rest of the country.

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