Apprenticeships are undoubtedly rising. In September, I wrote that the most popular subjects for apprenticeships (28%) were in business, administration and law. The highest climb in apprenticeships has occurred in the health, public services and care sector. And here, apprenticeships have roughly doubled over ten years, from 13% in 2006 to 25% of all apprenticeships in 2016. The total number of apprenticeships in England is currently running at around 500,000, meaning that about 125,000 are in public services and about 140,000 are in business, administration and law.
But is this all good? One thing that concerns me is capacity. Apprentices need support in the workplace, and this inevitably makes work for someone.
My experience of facilitating workplace learning placements
Back in 2001 after the New Labour government had reached its stride in the UK, I commenced a novel role. In a nutshell, my job was to increase the number of clinical placements available for students training to become nurses, therapists and other non-medical clinical professions. This was a direct result of the government's commitment to increasing the capacity of the National Health Service. My objectives were to help them meet their target of training 20,000 extra nurses and over 6,500 extra therapists by 2004. So, I worked in a network of Clinical Placement Facilitators in southeast England to do our part in our localities.
Mentoring is not to be taken lightly
The professional bodies stipulated that every student should have a placement mentor, fieldwork educator, or clinical educator to facilitate and assess their learning. During this time, however, I wondered what it was like to be one of the mentors I repeatedly visited, phoned or emailed, to request a student placement. For example, some presented a list of reasons why it would be impossible to accept a student. They reminded me of the hard work involved in combining clinical and mentoring practice and how it exhausted them. Sometimes, they told graphic tales of students who had made life difficult. Even their colleagues in the partner education organisation would sometimes seem disconnected or remote. Others told me about the pleasing students, their pride at reforming weak students, and the rewards they gained as mentors.
I empathised with those mentors who seemed genuinely unable to cope with additional students, and sometimes I felt guilty when trying to persuade these reluctant mentors.
Workforce peaks and troughs
The professional programmes I refer to are not quite the same as apprenticeships. Nevertheless, I can see parallels. Observing the peaks and troughs of the professional healthcare workforce as successive governments either boost or allow staff numbers to erode, I am aware of the extreme pressures placed on an eroded workforce when there is a surge of new students. Who will mentor them?
As the number of apprentices swells, I wonder how well prepared are the workforce in the burgeoning sectors. Are there sufficient numbers of experienced and skilled staff to work with, teach and supervise apprentices? Moreover, what systems are in place to support the staff who work with apprentices?
I would urge caution in overdoing the numbers of apprentices. Think quality rather than quantity. How many apprentices can you realistically accommodate? Giving a smaller number of apprentices an amazing learning experience will surely reap better rewards than trying to accommodate high numbers. Playing a pure numbers game will result in greater student attrition and more dissatisfaction all round.