This National Apprenticeship Week comes at a time when the way apprenticeships are developed and delivered across the UK is changing and diverging. For us in Wales, this year will see the first degree apprentices start their apprenticeships.
This is a big step. Much has been made about the difference in how academic and vocational education is perceived in Wales. When the Welsh Government’s proposals for a new commission with responsibility for further and higher education were published, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, talked about the need to ensure ‘genuine parity of esteem for vocational and academic routes’. Parity of esteem was also a key question in a recent inquiry by the National Assembly for Wales’ Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee.
Because degree apprenticeships are a combination of what would once have been seen as traditional academic and vocational education routes, they offer a unique opportunity to address the parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. The majority of a degree apprentice’s time is spent on the job, they are paid a salary and are considered an employee. But they are at the same time studying towards a degree with one of Wales’ universities. The degree apprenticeship itself will likely take somewhere between three and four years to complete and in the future may include qualifications such as a Masters or even a Doctorate. Initially in Wales there will be degree apprenticeships in computing, engineering and advanced manufacturing.
But the value of degree apprenticeships goes beyond their important role in addressing parity of esteem. The risks that automation presents to jobs has been a frequent topic in the public discussion on work and jobs in Wales. Over the next 20 years it is predicted more and more of the tasks normally carried out by people will be automated and carried out by software or machines. We’re already seeing accountancy companies piloting new technology to carry out auditing tasks faster and more accurately than a human. A recent Centre for Cities report found that an estimated 112,000 jobs in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport will be at risk of automation by 2030 and work by Nesta referenced by the Wales Centre for Public Policy estimated that a third of the Welsh workforce is employed in the least productive and most generic industries often considered at highest risk of automation.
There’s been a lot written about the ways in which Wales and the UK can make the most of the opportunities automation presents and mitigate the risks. This includes the importance of lifelong learning and the need for a flexible, adaptive workforce that can access opportunities to retrain and reskill. As well as the need for increasing STEM skills, there’s also a need to focus on the skills that differentiate people from technology with social skills and creativity commonly cited. It will become increasingly important to consider how people in Wales can access higher level skills – PricewaterhouseCoopers has found that the estimated risks of automation to those qualified to level 2 (GCSE level) are as high as 44%, but this falls to only around 11% for those education to degree level.
This is where new, innovative provision such as degree apprenticeships can play a vital role. Degree apprenticeships offer an option for people who wish to study for a degree while working or whose circumstances may preclude them from committing to a full-time degree course. Initial figures from take-up in England suggest that the current cohort of degree apprentices has a higher proportion of those from areas that have low levels of participation in higher education and that women tend to be better represented on degree apprenticeships in STEM subjects than on traditional full-time courses.
And this is the crux of it. If Wales is to be resilient to the coming changes to work caused by automation, then there will need to be many ways for people to access higher levels skills and to retrain, reskill or upskill. At this early vantage point, degree apprenticeships are shaping up to be an important piece of the puzzle.
There are challenges. The proximity of businesses in Wales to England, and the number of those that operate cross-border, presents a risk of confusion. The English and Welsh apprenticeship systems are now more different than ever. In England, degree apprenticeships have been in place since 2015 and apprenticeship provision is now linked with apprenticeship levy contributions. The degree apprenticeship offer in England is already very broad and large employers are keen to make the most of their levy contributions. In Wales, degree apprenticeships in the initial priority areas will be funded by Welsh Government via providers, rather than employers.
Supporting employers to understand the differences between the two systems, and how they can engage and make the most of the system in Wales, is an important piece of work in itself. That’s one of the reasons we’re working to raise awareness of the role of universities’ Industrial Liaison Officers in Wales, who can be a point of contact for businesses wanting to find new ways to work with universities.
But what the developments in England do show Wales is the appetite that exists among employers and individuals for this provision. At the time of writing there are currently 35 apprenticeship standards at level 6 or 7 approved for delivery in England and a further 81 in development. These standards cover a wide range of subjects including IT, engineering, nursing, policing, management, architecture and accountancy. The number of degree apprentices in England has been growing steadily since their introduction. Although the overall number of people starting an apprenticeship in England has been declining, down by 18,100 in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16, the number of starts on higher level apprenticeships has almost doubled in the space of two years.
Degree apprenticeships are also a vehicle through which the existing partnerships between universities, employers and other education providers can be developed. Universities in Wales already have a significant amount of experience working with employers to deliver skills. In 2015-16 alone Welsh universities provided nearly 250,000 days of continuing professional development to employees across Wales. Degree apprenticeships provide an opportunity to build on those existing relationships and forge new ones.
National Apprenticeship Week is the right time to not only celebrate the fantastic opportunities that apprenticeships continue to offer people in Wales, but also to look at how new developments such as degree apprenticeships can meet the needs of individuals, employers and Wales. Degree apprenticeships operate differently in Wales, England and Scotland and it’s important that in Wales we take note of the lessons learned elsewhere and make a concerted effort to communicate how degree apprenticeships will work in Wales. But more importantly we must not lose sight of just why degree apprenticeships are important, and the role they can have in giving people and businesses in Wales access to higher level skills and preparing the Welsh economy for the inevitable changes to work and jobs coming down the road.
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