Does the apprenticeship entry criteria need a rethink?

Kate Temple-Brown explores whether widening access to on-the-job training schemes could benefit businesses and learners alike

It’s worth noting during National Apprenticeship Week that academic qualifications over the past 20 years have, somewhat ironically, become increasingly important in early careers recruitment. Although companies have expanded their view on the range of subjects considered, unfortunately this hasn’t changed their view of target grades. These have stubbornly remained at AAB or 2:1 for nearly all school leaver and graduate programmes.  

But what to do when grades have been estimated or their value obliterated as they have been last year and now this year too? Does this suggest that organisations should or will increase the target grade? Or do these grades become increasingly less of a relevant indicator? Is this the trigger we need for hiring criteria to finally become fairer and more balanced?

I believe this disruption to exams and grading has hastened the need for companies to consider changing their assessment methodology and hire for cultural fit and behaviours as exam grades reduce in value. Forward-thinking recruitment teams are increasingly embracing this approach – not only to improve the diversity of their talent pipelines, but also to introduce fairer and more ethical hiring approaches.  

Those in early career management have long known that success in a role is really about behaviours and attitude rather than specific educational achievements. Using profile matching rather than pure academics enables organisations to cast the net more widely than those students who were able to succeed in the school environment. I’m excited to see whether this approach will continue to increase in adoption.  

But it raises a challenge. If they change the criteria, will they risk bringing a cohort of young people into their firms who simply require far too much support and guidance to adapt to the world of work? 

Is there comfort in the belief that those who apparently have intellectual prowess are those who hold all the critical skills required to adapt rapidly to the working world? To an extent they’re right, but there is also a real need for enhanced pastoral support, and that should be the case for all school leaver and graduate hiring.

It’s also worth asking how apprenticeships can support organisations building fairer hiring into their early careers strategy. For example, we’re definitely seeing companies recognise the need to put in place robust and relevant development programmes, and recruitment and development strategies are certainly becoming more aligned, but is that enough?

Those organisations that have done so recognised the rigour behind delivering an apprenticeship standard provides exactly the sort of onboarding, support and learning required. These standards are based on real roles and give a structured and relevant programme of learning that school leavers or graduates can follow. It gives them the technical capability and the human skills needed to be successful in the role over a year – using the programme time for the development journey. 

The hard work has been done here and, with government levy funding to finance the additional level of support and learning, the answer is closer than many firms may realise.

Schools and universities, however, are not teaching the human skills, such as communication, influencing skills and problem solving, that are so critical in the workplace. Even when companies hire based on excellent academic aptitude, they nearly always still need to teach their new hires these human skills.

Those companies that recognise they can rely on the capabilities and foundational skills that an apprenticeship programme can provide (regardless of the individuals educational background) will quickly realise they can widen the criteria for their talent pipeline. This, in turn, enables the attraction and recruitment team to focus on the motivation and culture fit of incoming talent from a wider background, and will enable organisations to build a culture that is more agile, innovative and creative.

Let’s use National Apprenticeship Week as an opportunity to discuss how the change in grades can actually help widen the talent pool. And we can do this safely with the knowledge that you can leverage a robust and levy-funded apprenticeship programme to ensure the early career population is best set up to succeed.

Kate Temple-Brown is client director at The Opportunity Group