How easy is it nowadays for early school leavers to gain employment? With graduates now taking up an increasing proportion of the UK workforce, it has seemingly become more difficult for people that leave education after their GCSEs and A-Levels to get on the job ladder, despite this non-graduate group making up a large majority (40%) of the workforce.
The pathways to employment for this relatively unexplored group are looked at in more detail in the Resolution Foundation’s most recent report, Finding your routes: non-graduate pathways in the UK’s labour market.
The research provides some useful insights. Utilising data from the Labour Force Survey and British Household Panel Survey, the analysis adds further weight to the evidence that higher qualifications bring greater earnings for non-graduates. However, while academic qualifications for non-graduates are generally valued more highly by employers than vocational ones, in traditionally vocational sectors such as construction and manufacturing, vocational qualifications typically yield a higher return.
The report also illustrates the ongoing impact of the recession on young ‘mid-skilled’ non-graduates, whose careers have stalled as a result of more graduates taking typical non-graduate work opportunities.
Given these growing difficulties experienced by non-graduates in trying to find their way into employment, the research poses important questions about the potential value of apprenticeships. With the Government targeting the creation of three million new apprenticeships by 2020, could this pathway present a more viable route into employment outside of university education?
Apprenticeships are becoming more commonplace within “white collar” sectors than previously. A wider range of employers are increasing the breadth of apprenticeships that they offer, which in turn has led to increased take up of advanced (Level 3 – equivalent to 2 A-levels) and higher/degree (Level 4, 5, 6 & 7 – equivalent to HNC through to Master’s Degree) apprenticeships. Across all ages, the number of advanced level apprenticeship starts rose by over 25% to 181,800 between 2013/14 to 2014/15, while during the same period the number of higher level apprenticeships more than doubled to 19,800.
However, apprenticeships still remain relatively uncommon within sectors such as finance, professional services and insurance. In London only 8% of firms employed apprenticeships in 2014, compared to the national average of 11%.
From April 2017, employers with an annual pay bill of over £3 million will have to pay an Apprenticeship Levy of 0.5% to HMRC, which will be used to fund apprenticeships for all companies across England. This new scheme may incentivise more industries to explore the apprenticeship route for employment, particularly given the additional subsidies received from Government.
The success of such reforms to the apprenticeship system, however, will depend on making sure that the quality of training and education provided is sufficient to meet the needs of a wider range of companies. A coordinated approach to developing sector wide standards, involving government, industry, training providers and universities, may help raise the level of apprenticeships and provide more rewarding long-term opportunities for non-graduates, as well as creating a viable alternative to employment away from university education.
 Resolution Foundation (2016), Finding your routes: non-graduate pathways in the UK’s labour market
 See gov.uk FE data library: apprenticeships