John Evans: Non-graduate routes to skilled employment are more important than ever

John Evans, doctoral researcher in Labour Market Policy and author of recent CommonSpace piece on skills, looks at the effectiveness of apprenticeships in Scotland in delivering higher paid work, and what role the new graduate level apprenticeships could play

THE labour market has, in recent decades, appeared a relatively straightforward place for young people transitioning from school to work. While the pathways through apprenticeship or university were well-trodden routes to ‘good’ employment, the labour market is now more ambiguous with higher levels of competition and lower levels of job security.

Although equal access to higher education is far from resolved in the UK, the relatively greater accessibility for marginalised social groups is indisputably positive. There is, however, less assurance than ever for young people and their families that the rising cost of a degree, in a saturated graduate labour market, will prove a smart investment.

The proliferation of degree-level qualifications under New Labour led many to underemployment. Rather than creating a ‘knowledge economy’ with a high wage, high-skilled workforce, many graduates remain unable to utilise the skills they invested in.

In terms of the alternative vocational route, the extension of the ‘apprenticeship family’ in Scotland to include short, entry level courses defined as level 2 Modern Apprenticeships (MA) has brought into question the value of apprenticeships as a reliable route to ‘good’ employment.

“The proliferation of degree-level qualifications under New Labour led many to underemployment. Rather than creating a ‘knowledge economy’ with a high wage, high-skilled workforce, many graduates remain unable to utilise the skills they invested in.”

It is also questionable whether apprenticeships remains an effective method of creating intermediate skills for the middle of the labour market, a site with great importance for social mobility.

Those in our society who are most likely to benefit from effective intermediate skills development are young people who cannot afford to, do not achieve the secondary qualifications to, or choose not to, attend university.

In the cluttered and unreliable landscape in between secondary and degree-level qualifications, more young people and their families are faced with uncertainty as to the likely returns on their investment in post-school vocational qualifications (see figure 1).

Figure 1: returns to low and intermediate-level vocational qualifications are lower and more variable: Rate of returns to different qualifications, %

 

Source: Up-skilling the middle: How skills policy can help ensure that low to middle income households share in future economic growth, Resolution Foundation (2012).

If we are serious about social mobility and safeguarding a fairer, inclusive Scotland in the face of a looming hard Brexit, we must work to ensure more clearly defined routes to ‘fair work’, for young people who don’t take the university path.

Labour market intelligence shows that higher level apprenticeships are still evidently worthwhile qualifications to pursue, increasing individual earning power and providing a boost for the economy.

Despite this evidence, level 4 and 5 MAs remain scarce in Scotland. Of 25,247 apprentices to start their training in 2014-15, only 3 per cnt (767) were levels 4 and 5. Equally, the high level of technical learning at levels 4 and 5 is not always complemented with the blend of professional and academic skills demanded by employers across advanced economies.

Increasing skills gaps at intermediate level, particularly ‘soft’ skills such as teamwork and communication, and professional skills like project management, indicate an alternative means of creating intermediate skills, both for the individual and the employer, is required.

“Labour market intelligence shows that higher level apprenticeships are still evidently worthwhile qualifications to pursue, increasing individual earning power and providing a boost for the economy.”

Graduate level apprenticeships (GLAs) are being rolled out across Scotland in 2016/17 and first impressions of the programme suggest GLAs have the potential to address many of these issues. 

A blend of technical, academic, and professional learning offers the individual the chance to develop the skills needed by employers, while also obtaining an academic qualification from a further or higher education institute. The university accreditation of this qualification should ensure transferability where much employer-run training intentionally does not.

As the individual is in paid employment throughout, it provides an alternative for young people who want to continue their academic learning, but cannot meet the financial burdens of further study.

With an initial focus on ICT, engineering, civil engineering, business and financial services, it could offer a viable, signposted alternative to the choice between academic and vocational education in the years to come - a choice becoming increasingly narrow with cuts to college places in Scotland.

“If the graduate level apprenticeship is promoted as the glamorous big brother of the traditional MA, a similar imbalance to that between further and higher education could emerge.”

The government must be careful, though, not to sow disharmony in the ‘apprenticeship family’ with a disparity of esteem between the traditional form of higher level technical apprenticeship and the GLA.

If the GLA is promoted as the glamorous big brother of the traditional MA, a similar imbalance to that between further and higher education could emerge. This imbalance could lead to the degradation of the traditional form of apprenticeship and a skills mismatch similar to that created by New Labour’s higher education expansion.

Most importantly, policy makers should be reminded of the importance of the middle of the labour market in terms of social mobility. In this respect, GLAs should offer a clearer route to good employment for non-graduates, and remedy the persistent inequalities that the MA programme has received heavy criticism over from political parties and civic bodies alike in recent years.

If these pitfalls can be avoided and GLAs are incorporated into the skills system with appropriate care, such a programme could contribute towards a much-needed rebalancing of the skills agenda in Scotland, where the needs of the individual and the employer, and the social and economic values of skills, are regarded as equal.

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