David Watt: It’s not just Lord Sugar who needs apprentices

University degrees have manyt benefits, but they are not the only way of forging a successful career. Picture: Sean Bell
University degrees have manyt benefits, but they are not the only way of forging a successful career. Picture: Sean Bell
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OBTAINING a university degree is seen by many as crowning an intellectual journey through education. Numerous studies have drawn conclusions about the long-term benefits of graduating from university.

These include the fact that graduates are less likely to smoke or become obese, are more likely to vote in elections, have a higher sense of wellbeing and help with their children’s education.

University education can lead to increased earning potential and social and academic skills, which lead to an individual becoming more employable. So it seems fair to say that studying at university can be the starting line for a successful life and obtaining a degree is the starting gun.

There are 50,000 different courses available to study in the UK. These courses cover an incredibly wide range of job types. In effect, a degree can be a springboard to a career full of choices.

However, university can also be extremely expensive. In the current job market and economy, university graduates often become under-employed and often leave with a huge student debt that they struggle to pay off. School-leavers in particular need to realise that there are alternative routes to a job. You can still succeed in life and work without a debt millstone.

In all my years with the Institute of ­Directors I have never had anyone say, “I can’t find a graduate” but often – again only last month – I have heard employers complaining that they can’t attract ­apprentices to well-paid ­opportunities. Many people forget that apprenticeships can lead individuals on to extremely successful careers as well as building their character and skills set. Apprenticeships provide fantastic hands-on experience of work in a very specific field, something university cannot deliver in lecture theatres and text books. Furthermore, apprenticeships offer young people the chance to gain recognised qualifications by the end of their training, which gives them a jump start into their career.

After a generation of increasing school leaver destinations into higher education, apprenticeships are becoming increasingly popular: they rose by 63.5 per cent between 2009 and 2010. Telecom giant BT has seen a huge increase in interest in recent years and could be expanding its apprenticeship scheme by up to 50 per cent in the next year.

It could be that the recently increased tuition fees in England and Wales are putting people off university, or maybe the numbers of “under-employed” graduates are growing.

A large problem with university is that many students choose courses that will educate them in a field that provides very few employment opportunities. In March this year, it was reported that more than a fifth of students fail to finish their degree, either because they did not choose the right course or they failed their exams.

In fact, a recent survey found that six out of every ten graduates were working in a field or profession not related to the degree they had studied and 20,000 could not find work at all after university. Students are beginning to wake up to this.

A study by Aldi showed that only 25 per cent of students think they will get a job that is related to their degree. Advice to these graduates ranges from starting their own business to moving abroad to find suitable work but surely there should be more advice on what course to choose in the first place?

UCAS (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) has a section of its website dedicated to course choice but doesn’t even mention employment after university. The days when a university education was about growing an individual’s intellect through study of abstract subjects are going. A study carried out by the Local Government Association showed that in 2011 only 40,000 people left education to fill around 72,000 jobs in the building and engineering trades. With engineering in particular extremely short of applicants and often well paid, it is bizarre that more than 83,000 people left education to try to fill a mere 65,000 jobs in media, journalism and public relations.

People considering university may well find that apprenticeships would have been better suited and more beneficial for them and their career prospects. Success has come for former apprentices too, such as Jim McColl, a serial entrepreneur and influential business leader, who started his career as an engineering apprentice at Weir Pumps. It didn’t stop him from going on to study for a degree and an MBA.

It is important to know what will benefit a person most, both in the long and short term. Apprenticeships are becoming more and more popular amongst employers and young people alike and can provide grounding in the reality of work in ways which universities often don’t.

Of course we all believe in education and training and young people in particular getting the best opportunity, but it must be what is best for them – education and development is for life and work. It is ­vital this is fully discussed with them before they make any life changing choices and decide to follow an academic study path because it just seems like the thing to do. «

• David Watt is executive director, IoD Scotland