Featured in The Times on 25 January 2017

Is a degree always the answer?

Ask most parents, and they will tell you that too many young people today are going to university. However, when it comes to the subject of where their children should go, they invariably say “to university.” So much of this has to do with the messaging; that university is essential and that there aren’t any real alternatives.

At WhiteHat, we’re obsessed with trying to build a genuine alternative to university. The government has played its role, with the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. For the first time in Britain, all large employers are obliged to engage with apprenticeships, or face effectively paying an additional tax. The levy has created a huge demand from blue chip employers that otherwise simply wouldn’t have existed. For this project to really succeed though, it will need support from parents and from teachers, as well as from employers.

Elite employers will still want to hire the best young people they can find, that is ingrained in their DNA. Parents approach the future of their children in a similar way; they want them to get the best possible career they can find. The onus is on us to convince employers that they can find great talent outside traditional university recruiting, and persuade parents and teachers that there is a viable alternative to university. If we get this right, we can transform the way employers recruit, bringing greater diversity and a broader range of talent to some of the world’s top organisations.

It is vital then that we rebrand apprenticeships as a means to access high-quality, career-building opportunities in sectors that young people actually want to work in. We need to move away from the idea that they are somehow inferior to the traditional academic route. The providers of apprenticeships must bear some of the responsibility for this perception. Too many apprenticeships are still being delivered with little clear progression, to people already in employment, and not in sectors that reflect where young people actually want to work.

There have been some great apprenticeship schemes operating over the last few years, from the fantastic programmes run by Rolls Royce in engineering, to those playing an ever more important role in how the big 4 accounting firms attract talent. However, there haven’t been nearly enough to match the 2 million offers made to students by universities last year. The reality is that a large number of young people want to work in tech, in finance, in advertising, and the only way for them to break into these sectors before had been to go to university.

This trend is changing, although awareness of the change is still low. There are some incredible opportunities out there in these sectors thanks to the new wave of apprenticeships. We’re currently helping Sage recruit apprentices into their “bots and moonshots” team, building AI robots from scratch and working with the very latest tech. With Innovate UK’s Digital Catapult, we’re exploring developing an apprenticeship in autonomous vehicles. If new technology is going to make a lot of existing jobs redundant, let’s ensure that young people are being equipped with the skills the new, digital economy will need. Just last week, Goldman Sachs announced their Technology Degree Apprenticeship programme, a tremendous way for someone to break into one of the world’s most elite institutions without having to go down the traditional university route.

These opportunities are still being broadcast to too small an audience. We will need to educate parents, teachers, and young people on the process and what is out there. We need more ambassadors who have come through the system and are willing to share stories of their success. We need more focus on non-academic destinations in our school system, so they can also reflect crucial indicators like earnings level. We must also remember that even kids achieving academically are not always best served by going to university, particularly for some of the jobs of the future.

Unlocking more of these opportunities and raising the awareness and profile of apprenticeships is a mission for everyone involved in this space. We must work together with parents and teachers to ensure that young people are made aware of what’s available, and help them feel comfortable that these options can present a clear route to a successful career. Parents will always want the best for their child, and that is absolutely right. We now need to prove that the best can exist outside the halls of a Russell Group university.