Over the past few decades, the main focus of UK government higher education policy has been focused predominantly on providing a learning path that will lead to career development opportunities in the services and business management sectors. For the service sector, the focus tends to be on study areas such as the accountancy, finance, legal, health and social care sectors. In both the service and business sectors, it is apparent that one of the main aims of graduation is to provide students with a foundation of learning that will ultimately lead to a managerial position in whichever study sector they have chosen.
While the objectives if this approach to education strategy are of value, there has been a cost in other areas of the workplace and industry sectors. Indeed, what it has meant is that learning in the industrial, engineering, manufacturing and production areas of business have become the poor relation. Since the change of direction to a more service focused economy that started to develop in the 1980s, it has increasingly become less ‘chic’ for students to start their careers on the factory or warehouse floor. During this period, apprenticeships have also tended to become viewed as a ‘working class’ domain.
Yet now it appears that this gap in the education policy has been recognised as important by all UK political parties, with the result being that far more attention is being paid to encouraging students to opt for an apprenticeship rather than a university education. Of course, one could suggest that this change of focus has occurred because of the impending election. This is supported by a report in the Telegraph, which suggests that 90% of parents consider apprenticeships to be important. However, there is a sting in the tail of to this opinion poll outcome. It appears that while the majority of respondents considered apprenticeships to be important, most also did not consider this to be an option for their own child, preferring they study at university instead. In the opinion of the author, this dichotomy of opinion fails to grasp the true value of a resurgence of apprenticeships.
The value of apprenticeship
Historically, the demise in industrial apprenticeships has been fuelled by the increase in business Internationalisation. Western corporations, seeking to reduce costs, particularly those associated with labour, were keen to outsource their manufacturing and production operations to developing and emerging countries, where labour was significantly cheaper that in their domestic locations. However, recently, these benefits have been reducing. Stricter governance controls over working conditions in outsourced locations, together with increasing economic improvements in these locations, means that the cost of overseas has been increasing. Equally, issues such as the increased cost of transportation and product quality issues is dissipating the benefits of overseas production.
All of these issues have resulted in improved economic benefit in developing and emerging countries, while in Western locations, economic growth is far more sluggish. Increasing self-sufficiency of production/manufacturing in countries like the UK can help to address this issue. Furthermore, with continuing advances in technology, this would have little impact on the cost of labour. Increase in apprenticeships would provide the foundation for this rebuilding process.
Perhaps a more important consideration is the impact that students educated and advancing their careers through apprenticeships would have on corporate performance and profitability. Employees who have learnt from ‘the shop floor up’ have an advantage over those who have been ‘fast-tracked’ into managerial positions. They learn about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the business. They also learn first-hand the skills and competences required to work effectively in a team-based environment, and have a greater understanding of the issues that the workforce are likely to face. Therefore, when they achieve a managerial position, they are able to contribute more to the strategic decision-making process of the corporation.
It is therefore concluded that creating an appropriate balance between apprenticeship and higher education learning will have a positive impact on employee careers, corporate performance, sustainability and growth, and the performance of the national economy.
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