Access to higher education has long been viewed as a driver of social mobility. In November 2021, The Sutton Trust published research highlighting the importance of social mobility in universities, with a specific focus on income mobility.
The research found that higher education is a key driver for social mobility, as young people from low-income backgrounds are four times more likely to become socially mobile if they attend a university. However, it has become increasingly difficult to access professional qualifications under the current economic climate, where people are under more pressure than ever to make ends meet financially.
With more people seeking alternative ways to access career progression and social mobility opportunities, apprenticeships have become an increasingly common route. No longer just a career path exclusive to school leavers or those starting out in new careers, apprenticeships are now an opportunity at all stages of professional life, supporting those who may want to upskill within their existing role or organisation.
Particularly in the digital age, apprenticeships have evolved to include a range of job roles across sectors, helping to support people of all ages with new ways of learning. Not only are they beneficial by providing invaluable skills relevant to the current economic landscape, but they also support the younger generation by paying them a salary rather than incurring university debts.
This evolving picture has seen governments and businesses alike wake up to the value of apprenticeships as a meaningful way of bridging the skills and talent gap. While solving part of the talent crisis, apprenticeships also support social mobility by unlocking talent from deprived or underprivileged backgrounds or those struggling to find the funds to continue building their professional qualifications and may be a more viable option for those who are less academic.
In fact, the face of apprentices has started to mature over recent years. In our latest Oxfordshire Local Skills Dashboard 2021/22 report, we found that the number of apprenticeships started by those over the age of 25 increased by 32% since 2017-18 (1,390 starts in 2017/18 to 1,840 in 2021/22). The over-25s starting an apprenticeship now make up 49.3% of all apprentices within our county.
While it is hugely positive to see apprenticeships diversifying in their offering, we have also seen apprenticeship starts falling at the Intermediate Level, particularly for younger learners. This is an area of concern not just within Oxfordshire but reflected nationally, and it contradicts the design of the apprenticeship levy system, as less funding becomes available for young people when businesses use it to reskill or upskill older employees.
However, the number of higher qualification apprenticeships on offer has massively increased during the same period. The data from Oxfordshire shows that only 380 higher apprenticeships were started in 2017/18 compared to 1,190 in 2021/22. This increase of over 213% is a strong reflection of how businesses are beginning to realise the value of accessing talent from a more diverse range of backgrounds – growing highly skilled talent, truly bespoke to their industry and needs.
The UK Government also shares this view, with the 2023 spring budget announcement seeing £22 million earmarked to help support called ‘returnerships’ or return apprenticeships (although not through the apprenticeship levy). These target older workers and learners in a bid to combat unemployment and early retirement.
One of the many excellent examples of how undertaking an apprenticeship during one’s career can continue to open doors and enable new career paths is Chez Bousfield, who won the Higher / Degree Apprentice of the Year Award at the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship Awards this month.
Chez is a CAHMS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) Service Improvement Coordinator at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. Her role is to project-manage and coordinate ongoing work to reduce waiting times across the service. She started her career as an administrator but found herself struggling to progress once she reached a manager position, lacking the formal qualifications to take the next step.
Chez aspired to undertake further qualifications for over a decade but was financially unable to go part-time to allow the time necessary to accommodate a university degree- which, in turn, left her putting further qualifications on the back burner. She was offered the opportunity to take on a level 5 management apprenticeship through her role at Oxford Health, which gave her the time to learn while earning, making it possible for her to take the leap into her current, more senior role.
At OxLEP Skills, we have long championed organisations large and small on their journeys to access untapped potential, such as Chez, within their organisations and grow their teams with talent from all backgrounds and ages.
Through our Social Contract Programme – a £1.7 million initiative supporting companies with utilising the apprenticeship levy to spearhead local opportunities and economic growth – we have been able to ensure funding that can support further apprenticeship provision is retained in Oxfordshire.
Since its launch, the programme has now unlocked nearly £1 million of unused apprenticeship levy across the county, enabling the creation of new roles in healthcare, education, and professional services, to mention but a few.
Funding for the Social Contract programme was secured by OxLEP from the government’s Contain Outbreak Management Fund via Oxfordshire County Council. We encourage small businesses to get involved and find out how the apprenticeship levy pledged from large organisations could support them by filling skills shortages and building talent pipelines within their organisation.
This time of year, we can really celebrate and shine a light on some of the diverse opportunities that can be unlocked through apprenticeships through the quality of the finalists for the Oxfordshire Apprenticeship Awards 2023 – which took place on 18 May, hosted by OxLEP Skills.
Supporting talent from across the county, the awards uplift apprentices and different apprenticeship schemes, each in their own way supporting people to develop rewarding career pathways to reach their dream jobs. Nominees and winners span sectors from healthcare to HR to architecture – making it clear that apprenticeships are a great option no matter your interests, level of ability, age or background.
With more apprenticeships made possible through initiatives such as the Social Contract Programme and apprenticeship grants, we will not only support businesses in safeguarding their future pipeline of talent but continue to learn and upskill employees throughout their career.
Visit oxfordshirelep.com/socialcontract to see how your business could benefit through the Social Contract Programme.
Sally Andreou is a Skills Hub Manager at OxLEP Skills