A New Look for Apprenticeships

Amid continuing labor shortages, firms are offering apprenticeships in a range of executive-type fields. But for such roles, is hands-on training an adequate replacement for college?

The apprenticeships among the job listings seemed normal. They would last up to five years and offer an increasing pay scale. But there was one key twist—beyond trade gigs, they came in banking, marketing, even medicine.

In a country still struggling with a tight labor market, a growing number of firms have decided they can’t find candidates in top fields the usual way—i.e., by waiting for them to earn university degrees. Instead, apprenticeships that were once confined to trades are becoming an increasingly attractive alternative in a growing range of executive-type fields. "Companies have started to think differently," says Ben FrostKorn Ferry’s senior client partner for products. It is a change, though, that experts are still debating

To be sure, university remains the most popular choice for potential candidates in most top fields, with around 800,000 students graduating in the UK each year. But apprenticeships are catching up fast. In fiscal year 2020-21, 137,000 people successfully completed apprenticeships, up 9% from the previous year, government data shows. And the government is steadfastly supporting the initiative with taxes from the public purse.

The appeal of apprenticeships is obvious. College graduates tend to be more expensive and come with training in theoretical concepts that may not be relevant to their business. With apprenticeships, on the other hand, firms offer practical experience and get to try out new workers for relatively small sums. "There's less weight on academia and more on the ability to apply knowledge in the right context," says Andy Holmesa Korn Ferry associate client partner specializing in human-centric approaches to sustainable high performance. He also points out that because technology is moving so fast, someone learning on the job will have workplace skills that are fit for the right purpose at the right time.

But experts point out that not all companies have an optimal corporate culture for hosting apprenticeships. Like many other young people, apprentices need special hand-holding that many managers today may struggle to offer. If these apprentices feel they don’t fit in, they may leave after completing their training. “The reality is, when you've got an organization that isn't open to new ideas, they will have a hard time attracting and retaining talent," Holmes says.

There are other challenges. Apprenticeships tend to be more suited to larger companies that can bring on many people and give them the attention they need. "You will get a lot of questions from apprentices," says Holmes. Answering so many queries can be time-consuming and, for some organizations, irritating. And apprentices need to be motivated to learn for themselves. Not everyone can do that. "Sometimes it's not optimal; it depends on the individuals," he says.

Still experts say that labor shortages may force firms into offering apprenticeships, potentially changing career paths for many roles. Indeed, even Britain's aspiring doctors will soon be able to train via an apprenticeship. Medical apprentices will be held to the same high standards of those pursuing degrees, but they’ll be on the job from day one. Meanwhile, those who go the university route will become doctors in four years instead of five. “You need to do some learning by watching and some learning by doing," Frost says. "If you shorten a program, there's a risk that the practical part gets pushed aside."


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