Semta's Chief Executive Ann Watson shares her views on the latest news, policy, issues and events of interest to the engineering and advanced manufacturing sector. 


Monday, 14 August 2017 00:00

Consider the options: We need young people to be free to choose the best option for them

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Guest Blog by Dame Judith Hackitt - Semta Chair


Although my own children left school more than 10 years ago, at this time of year I always think back to that stressful time for them, and for us as parents, when we were waiting with bated breath for their GCSE/ A level results. Everything seemed to hinge on the outcome – getting the right grades in the right subjects to do the A-Levels they wanted to do, then getting A-Level grades that far exceeded what I was expected to achieve 30 years earlier to get into the university of their choice. Nowadays it is our friends’ and neighbours’ children who are anxiously awaiting those outcomes.

Many things have changed in the intervening period of time – tuition fees, student loans, more universities and colleges to choose from, more courses and a renaissance in apprenticeships, to name but a few. While the choice of courses is ever greater, some of the barriers and obstacles to university are undoubtedly greater – the introduction of university tuition fees and facing the prospect on graduation of a sizeable student loan to be paid off over a large period in one’s working life being the obvious examples.

I went to university to get my chemical engineering degree and, for me, the whole experience of university was a positive one which changed me and my outlook and set me up for a career which has been rewarding and filled with opportunities. My daughters also went to university and are now pursuing their own careers in marine biology and accounting. It is always difficult to draw comparisons between generations but when they went to university if felt like a very different proposition. First of all, there was a much greater expectation that pretty much everyone in their peer group was going to go on to university. What I saw among some of their friends at uni were a number of really good people with great potential but who were in the wrong place for them and really didn’t know why they had come to university – it had just seemed like the next step that had to be taken.

I belong to the generation where apprenticeships (almost exclusively for boys back then) were a real and very creditable alternative for those who didn’t want to go to university. [Note: they didn’t want to go to university, it wasn’t that they were not capable of getting into university, they made an active choice to do something else]. I now know many senior engineers who have been highly successful in their careers and who chose to follow that path through first becoming an apprentice – my predecessor as Chair of Semta is but one of the many.

The evidence is clear that there is more than one road to success. The key is for young people to do what is right for them and not to be channelled, cajoled or even bullied into doing what is not the best route for them because of out of date perceptions/expectations. The latest Industry Apprentice Council (IAC) report shows that 98% of young industry apprentices are happy with the choice they made; there must be many more young people out there who would benefit from making that same choice but will never get to do so because of pressure from other people to conform to a narrow expectation of what ‘success’ looks like.

Survey data clearly shows that today 92% of parents think that apprenticeships offer good training and career routes. But why then, when asked if they would want their own child to follow an apprenticeship route, does the number drop to 35%?? It’s a mistaken and out of date view about parity and status – a perception that somehow a university route is “better”.  The reality is that uni will be right for some, but for many others an apprenticeship (which very often leads on to a degree level qualification) would actually be the better route.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask some of the biggest employers in engineering and manufacturing who are the most employable candidates, and who are most industry ready at the end of their training, and many will tell you that they see great advantages in employing those who do apprenticeships. They cite higher levels of practical skills and a greater tendency/enthusiasm to stay in industry among the reasons for their preference.

For many of the young people themselves, the practical nature of apprenticeships offers a much more interesting experience, they get to earn while they learn, they spend time in industry learning about current technologies and why exciting developments are taking place - and they don’t have a student loan debt to pay off at the end.

Sadly, one of the things which hasn’t changed much over several decades is the quality of careers advice offered to students and their parents. Perhaps the notion that any one careers advisor can even attempt to cover all of the possible options is completely impractical in today’s world – if indeed there is a professional careers advisor available to speak to young people in a particular school or college. Schools themselves have perverse incentives to encourage people to stay on to 18, even if there is an alternative route to which they would be better suited and which some would get more from. No wonder that the IAC report finds that little over a fifth of apprentices say the careers advice they got was good or very good – with some apprentices reporting being punished for trying to go down that route.

My only hope is that in the next few weeks, as those all-important results come through, more young people and the people who influence them actually take time to consider all of the options, without prejudice or out of date perceptions getting in the way, and focus on what will really be best for each individual. Ask those all important questions – what would you really like to do? What is the best and most suitable way for you to go?

This is all about their futures, and about allowing our young people to achieve their full potential by choosing the route that is best for each and every one of them.

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