“Talent without Limits”: the impact of apprenticeships in Scotland

by Scott Faulds

Over the past six years, Skills Development Scotland has been working to increase the number of people starting apprenticeships across Scotland. Recent statistics have revealed that they are on track to meet their target of 30,000 new apprenticeship starts by the end of the financial year 2020. The provision of apprenticeships has been a key element of the Scottish Government’s youth employment strategy , which highlights the government’s belief that apprenticeships are an excellent opportunity for young people to gains skills, experience and a qualification while in employment.

This week (2nd March to 6th March) Skills Development Scotland has launched Scottish Apprenticeship Week 2020, with the theme “Talent without limits”, designed to celebrate the benefits apprenticeships bring to businesses, individuals and the economy. This blog will explore the impact of apprenticeships on business, education providers and young people in Scotland. It will also consider the benefits of work-based learning, graduate apprenticeships and workplace diversity.

Work-based learning

The availability of good-quality apprenticeships allows those who may not be interested in pursuing further education an alternative route in which to gain a formal qualification whilst gaining experience in the world of work. This is known as work-based learning, which is widely considered to be beneficial to the apprentice, education provider, employer and the wider economy.

According to research conducted by the European Training Foundation, workplaces where employees are constantly learning new skills tend to be more productive, more profitable and have lower staff turnover. A recent survey conducted by Skills Development Scotland found that 83% of modern apprentice employers agree that apprenticeships have improved productivity, whilst 79% said that employing apprentices improved staff morale.

Additionally, work-based learning has been found to improve the job prospects of learners, allowing them to build relationships with employers who may offer them full-time positions on completion of their apprenticeship.

The development of apprenticeship programmes allows employers and education providers to develop a close working relationship, which enables a better understanding of the skills required by the labour market. This allows for the creation of educational programmes that are more relevant to the demands of all employers, not just those who operate apprenticeship schemes. As a result, the skills developed by apprentices will be directly relevant to the skills required by the labour market. This could potentially improve the likelihood of securing a job following the completion of an apprenticeship. Thus, it can be said that work-based learning features benefits for apprentices, education providers, business and the wider economy.

Skills, growth sectors and graduate apprenticeships

Apprenticeship schemes provide the government with an opportunity to improve the collective skill base of Scotland by encouraging the development of apprenticeship opportunities in key sectors and areas which have the potential to generate economic growth. For example, analysis conducted by Oxford Economics has found that there will be a 4% growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related roles in Scotland from 2015 to 2027. This equates to the creation of approximately 42,600 skilled jobs.

Therefore, it is of no surprise that the Scottish Government has been focused on trying to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities available in STEM roles. In the past year alone, four out of ten modern apprenticeship starts, and the vast majority of all graduate apprenticeship starts, have been in STEM occupations.

Traditionally, securing a STEM role would require a formal qualification secured via an academic route, which can often be costly and take up to four years. Research conducted by Ekosgen has revealed that there has been a decline in the number of pupils studying and passing STEM-related subjects at schools and a decline in STEM enrolments in Scottish colleges. As a result, the traditional academic route in which to secure a STEM role may not be able to produce enough STEM-qualified individuals to meet the demands of industry.

In order to meet the demand for skilled workers, Skills Development Scotland has worked with industry and education partners to develop graduate apprenticeship schemes. These apprenticeships offer people the opportunity to gain up to a Master’s degree qualification in subjects such as civil engineering, data science and software development. The development of this model of apprenticeship has been praised by organisations such as PwC, Aegon and Universities Scotland, as a vital way in which to develop a highly-skilled workforce that will meet the demands of the growing STEM sector.

Diversity and equality

A key theme identified by the Scottish Government within their youth employment strategy is the need to develop clearer routes into apprenticeships for those from previously under-represented groups. The strategy explicitly discusses the need to increase the number of apprenticeship starts from minority ethnic communities, young disabled people, looked after children and a desire to improve the gender balance of apprenticeships (particularly those in male-dominated sectors).

According to Skills Development Scotland’s recent Apprenticeship Equality Action Plan, efforts to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships have had mixed results. Over the past four years, the number of disabled and BME (Black and minority ethnic) individuals starting modern apprenticeships has risen year on year. However, 72% of modern apprenticeship frameworks continue to have a gender imbalance of 75:25 or worse. This is particularly prevalent within the construction sector where only 2% of participants are female. Additionally, there has been a slight decrease in the number of care experienced people starting modern apprenticeships. Therefore, it is evident that whilst some progress has been made at improving the diversity of individuals starting an apprenticeship, there is still work to be done, particularly when it comes to improving gender balance.

Recent research has highlighted that diversity is essential for organisations who are looking to foster a culture of sustainable innovation. As previously discussed, future jobs are likely to be created in innovative STEM-related sectors, and therefore the need to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships will be vital to ensure that the quality of the Scottish workforce is able to meet the demand of growing innovative industry.

Final thoughts

In summary, the provision of apprenticeships has had a great deal of impact across Scotland. From developing the skill base of Scotland’s workforce to helping to improve the relationship between industry and education providers, the impact of apprenticeships goes far beyond providing young people with access to work-based learning and a formal qualification.

However, work still needs to be done to improve under-represented groups’ access to apprenticeships. Diversity has repeatedly been shown to increase workplace creativity and performance. Both of these traits will be critical in ensuring that Scotland is able to develop a workforce that can meet the needs of the innovative industries set to experience growth in the future.  


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