Increasing tuition fees and a rise in interest charges have made university a decidedly expensive option for students.
But one Sussex college has been working with businesses to offer a different path to the youngsters collecting their GCSE and A-level results – an apprenticeship.
Crawley College – formerly Central Sussex College, now part of the Chichester College Group – has around 750 apprentices on its books, from all over the county, who earn while they learn with the help of local employers.
The college has worked with the likes of Manor Royal-based pension provider B&CE and other financial businesses to form a Trailblazer group, designing apprenticeships specifically for that sector.
Six apprentices are due to start at B&CE this month, following in the footsteps of eight others, who joined in 2015 and 2016. They work four days a week, spending the fifth at college, are paid a Living Wage of £15,500 and enjoy the same benefits as other employees.
And, with only two deciding the apprenticeship wasn’t for them, the overall outcome has impressed Zoe Wright, B&CE’s director of people and premises. Describing the scheme as “really successful”, Zoe said B&CE intended to continue taking on apprentices.
Because we’ve trained them for a year and they know exactly what they’re doing, they know our customers, they know our systems. Why would we not want to keep them? It would seem crazy to do so!Zoe Wright, Director of people and premises, B&CE
That comes as no surprise as the young people bring with them little or no previous experience, no set ideas of what their job should be and no habits that may clash with the values of their new employer. Zoe and her colleagues are able to train and mould them to meet the needs of the company, and the standards expected.
When it came to recruiting the apprentices, attitude was a key factor, rather than reams of glowing exam results.
Zoe said: “For us it’s all about customer service. If they can speak clearly and confidently and they want to help and they’re enthusiastic, they’re 90 per cent there and all we have to do is train them up on our products and our systems and all the specifics of working in an office.”
Some 509,400 apprenticeships were started in the 2015 to 2016 academic year of which 131,400 were for people under the age of 19.
Apprenticeships must last for at least a year, though they can last up to five years depending on the level the apprentice is studying.
People from a BAME background made up 10.6 per cent of apprentices in 2015, and the government is working to increase this by 20 per cent by 2020.
Source: Department for Education
One of the first to be taken on was Poppi Hillman-Smith, from Haywards Heath.
Poppi has earned her Level 2 and 3 AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) qualifications and works as a full-time finance assistant for the firm. Her aim is to complete Level 4 and become a finance technician.
While there is no air-tight guarantee of a job at the end of the apprenticeship – the world simply doesn’t work that way – Zoe made it clear that dropping the young people once they were trained would make no sense.
She said: “When we take them on we offer a contract for initially the year where they are doing their qualification. But at the end of it, if they want to stay, then up to now we’ve had jobs available for all of them.
“There hasn’t been a case of us saying to any of them at the end ‘there’s no job for you’.
“And why would we? Because we’ve trained them for a year and they know exactly what they’re doing, they know our customers, they know our systems. Why would we not want to keep them? It would seem crazy to do so!”
Away from the financial sector, housing developer Taylor Wimpey started working on a new scheme with the college in March, intent on employing 15 bricklaying and carpentry students.
They were so impressed with the calibre on offer that the scheme was expanded to take on 18!
A spokesman said: “The teams will work together, exclusively under the supervision of master tradesmen, and each apprentice will work towards an NVQ at Level 3 and above.
“Upon completion of the programme, the students will be qualified in their chosen fields and ready to continue their careers in the construction industry which is currently booming in the south east and in need of skilled workers.”
More than 2,600 employers were involved in designing the new apprenticeships standards.
There are currently 100 higher and degree apprenticeships available, with more in development, including foundation degrees, HNDs and full honours degrees. These include job roles ranging from legal services to banking and engineering.
The government’s figures show that 89 per cent of apprentices were satisfied with their apprenticeship, while 92 per cent said their career prospects had improved.
Source: Department for Education
Not all apprentices head into their training completely inexperienced.
Keeley Macconnell started her working life in a psychiatric hospital before realising it was not what she wanted to do. She opted for an apprenticeship because she “wanted to start from the bottom really and learn on the job”.
The 20-year-old is now serving an apprenticeship in Crawley College’s job shop, helping students find work experience and part-time work outside their studies.
And Keeley seems keen to take advantage of all paths open to her. Having just finished her Level 2 qualification, she plans to complete her Level 3 before heading off to university.
So, what are the advantages of an apprenticeship, from a financial point of view?
For the students, university fees now stand at £9,250 per year and look set to rise to £9,500 per year in 2018 – and that’s before basics such as accommodation and food.
In addition, interest will be charged at 6.1 per cent – rising from 4.6 per cent – from the autumn term, though the Department for Education insisted “borrowers will only ever pay back what they can afford”.
It is estimated that students starting university in September will rack up between £43k and £57k of debt by the time they graduate.
Compare that to a job paying at least £3.50 an hour in the first year coupled with training and college tuition. Most employers such as B&CE pay much more, with Crawley College quoting the average salary at around £170 per week.
Apprenticeships have helped to train 7 per cent more women into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) roles – an area in which they have been woefully under-represented.
As for the employers, 87 per cent said they were satisfied with the apprenticeship programme, while 76 per cent said productivity had improved since employing an apprentice and 75 per cent reported apprenticeships had improved the quality of their product or service.
Source: Department for Education
As for the employers, the introduction of the government’s apprenticeship levy in April made taking on an apprentice look like a financially sound option.
The levy means any firm with a wage bill of more than £3m per year has to pay 0.5 per cent of that bill into a national fund, but is given an allowance of £15,000 against that payment to fund an apprentice.
For smaller firms, the government will pay all costs for new apprentices aged 16-18 and 90 per cent of costs for those aged 19 and over.
Andy Forbes, of Crawley College, called on more employers to consider taking on apprentices.
He said: “It’s become a real solid choice for people.
“We’ve seen the amount of people who have done A-levels and want to do apprenticeships really grow, and those are signs that it’s really started to develop into something that is a really meaningful route for some one who otherwise would have taken a different route such as university.
“We really want employers to talk to providers and think about how they can take on young people particularly.
“Yes it’s a challenge but the rewards are great.”
Zoe agreed – and her message to other employers was simple: “I’d say give it a go.
“Just try it with one person and see how successful it is, and if it works then role it out a bit wider.”
To find out more about apprenticeships with Crawley College, log on to www.crawley.ac.uk/apprenticeships .