School leavers: an untapped professional resource?

Following the new Prime Minister’s reshuffle, it was announced that new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, will expand her remit to cover higher education and skills, including apprenticeships.

Given the previous government’s focus on apprenticeships, talk of introducing an apprenticeship levy and the still-to-be-determined impact of Brexit what does this mean for the UK’s future workforce?

There has long been a perception that apprenticeships exist only for trades and are certainly not an obvious route into a professional or office-based career. Is the move from the Department of Skills to Department of Education a signal that apprenticeships will be positioned as a viable alternative to University? Will apprentices, with fresh perspectives and on-the-job experience, soon provide competition to graduates?

From an employer perspective apprentices are an economic way to fill a variety of roles with smart, ambitious and career-focused young people that are willing to learn and must be driven to succeed. It is also a way to invest in young people’s futures which will pay dividends for the future of your organisation and sector.

Apprentices spend four days a week working in their chosen role and one day per week studying for a professional qualification. On top of this they must dedicate private study time to ensure they are on track with coursework and exam preparation.

Step Forward, a London-based school-leavers’ programme run by social integration charity The Challenge, expects yet more from its apprentice ‘associates’ with excellent reason. With social mixing at the core of The Challenge’s mission, a high quality educational and vocational programme is combined with developing skills that allow young people to confidently mix and network with people of any background, culture and age: a workplace skill which is now more pertinent and needed than ever before.

To ensure that candidates are capable and dedicated to this pathway, Step Forward runs a competitive selection process. Young people must apply, pass an assessment and then prepare for and pass an interview for a relevant job role. Associates are recruited from all cross-sections of the community, meaning that the most-able young people are accepted onto the programme regardless of background.

Associates are given extensive support by mentors and tutors to mature into effective professionals over 12 months. Whilst studying professional qualifications on a variety of pathways at Level 3, such as Accounting and Social & Digital Marketing, they spend most of their time developing skills on-the-job, plus have a fortnightly opportunity to mix with peers learning professional skills and working on social action projects.

This combination of activity, learning and support contributes to the 88% Step Forward apprenticeship completion rate, against the national average of 64% and means that Step Forward is a unique programme, developing young people that are well-rounded and able to mix with people from all backgrounds. The total cost to employers is just £12,000 per Associate.

With the opportunity to economically staff a variety of functions, from administration and finance to marketing and IT, with well-trained capable, socially adaptable young people Step Forward has provided associates to numerous organisations. This includes Bloomberg, Mishcon de Reya, the Royal Academy of Music, Zendesk and Comic Relief.

The Brilliant Club, a charity which widens access to highly-selective universities for pupils from under-represented groups, hired IT apprentice Ashley in 2014-15. It was such a success that they took on two further Step Forward apprentices in 2015-16.

Chantal Wall at The Brilliant Club said, ‘When we have team meetings it has been invaluable having a recent school leaver as part of the team. This diversity in experience and age has been so useful. It has been a very rewarding experience for me, watching Ashley grow throughout the year. His confidence has grown hugely and he has been such a positive part of our team. Step Forward associates are ambitious and motivated by the fact they have made it onto the programme.’

It’s not just the employers that benefit either. Apprentices have the opportunity to earn a salary whilst studying a recognised professional qualification, mix with other young people and learn invaluable career and life skills, without getting into debt. With the programme providing a variety of skills the Step Forward associates are head and shoulders above their peers once the programme finishes, learning skills that can easily be transferable into other sectors and professions.

At the end of the programme four out of five associates rated themselves as more confident, better at understanding what life is like for people who are different to themselves and better at working in a team.

Step Forward is always keen to hear from London-based employers interested in the scheme. We are currently selecting the most able young people for entry-level roles across a range of industries and functions. Apprentices will be available for work from September.


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