More than merely showcasing work, this year’s event also felt like an invaluable knowledge exchange – a mingling of newfound innovations between different groups seeking novel approaches to a unique and challenging climate. For me, hearing stories of success first-hand is one of the privileges of chairing the Apprenticeship Ambassador Network. I’m sure I was not the only person struck by the enthusiasm, energy and passion of the UK’s apprentice ecosystem. The event reminded me that the UK's apprenticeship community is a formidable force. With the right approach, spirit, determination and know-how, I’m convinced that the country can create a world-leading skills economy as we recover from Covid.
But some changes are needed first. In 2012, when I was researching my report, Making Apprenticeships More Accessible to SMEs, I learned just how reluctant apprentices were to associate themselves with the term. Many felt the apprentice ‘brand’ was tarnished – they preferred to keep their apprenticeships hidden. While this has improved somewhat since 2012, the issue has not evaporated completely. Another problem is that many apprentices lack a sense of belonging to a larger community, like their Higher Education peers. This has been particularly exacerbated by the pandemic and remote working.
Aiming to fix some of these problems, I recently co-founded the Association of Apprentices – a community run by apprentices, for apprentices. The Association fills the broader social gaps often missing from the UK’s apprenticeship programmes. A founding principle is that apprentices themselves must lead the charge. With this in mind, and to ensure the Association is fit for purpose, we polled 1,600 current and past apprentices, and those considering apprenticeships, to find out what they expected of membership.
Respondents’ top three priorities were career opportunities, career progression and professional development. They also highlighted a desire to meet other apprentices in social settings, to attend networking events and to hear from experts and business leaders in their sector.
These insights will help shape the Association’s future direction. Of course, apprentice voice does not stop with one survey. We’ve also recruited a council of 17 current and recent apprentices (and will shortly be recruiting more to take this up to 30) to provide strategic input. A new online platform, currently under development, will meet many of the apprentices’ needs. For as long as face-to-face interactions remain impossible, this will be essential. Even when things improve, the platform will remain key – digital working won’t disappear, even when the pandemic does.
While the Apprentice Council and survey results will guide the Association’s development, we’re also reaching out to partners like the Edge Foundation. Edge’s experience at promoting apprenticeships and amplifying youth voice in education are vital assets. Who knows how this relationship might evolve?
Over the past decade, I’ve chaired several government boards aimed at reforming the UK apprenticeship system. Preparing this system for a post-pandemic world is going to be a complex puzzle to solve. However, I feel certain that the Association of Apprentices is a key piece of this puzzle. By connecting apprentices from around the country, giving them a voice and providing access to industry leaders, we’re building the necessary foundations to overcome any future hurdles we might face. Challenges lie ahead, certainly. But the possibilities are enthralling, too. What else can I say but… watch this space!
Jason Holt CBE is an accomplished business leader, author of the 2012 Holt Review and a respected educationalist. He is vice chair and co-founder of the Association of Apprentices