Could the diversity of routes into work help solve East Anglia’s skills crisis?
PUBLISHED: 08:40 30 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:56 05 September 2017
In the face of an ageing population leaders in East Anglia are focused on increasing the skill level of the region’s workforce. But what is the best educational route to take? Bethany Whymark reports.
With exam results season over for another year, the region’s young people will be amid preparations for their future – while its businesses will be on the look-out for new recruits.
But well-documented skills gaps in industries from engineering to agriculture are prompting many businesses to reassess where their talent comes from.
A report from the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) shows that while educational attainment and university attendance are still below national averages, participation in education across Norfolk and Suffolk remains high with a “much stronger vocational and non-academic take-up” than elsewhere in the country.
Currently 59% of students go into full-time A-level study post-16, below the national average of 63%, and 40% attend university compared with 48% nationally.
But in the past 10 years the number of people qualified to a first-degree level (i.e. graduates) in the two counties has increased by 58%, and if current trends continue as expected, almost half the workforce (46%) will be qualified to the equivalent of NVQ Level 4 by 2024.
With 59.5% of the counties’ population of working age in 2015, below the national average, and this proportion set to decrease as their populations age, increasing workers’ skill levels could be a crucial step in securing future productivity.
Since 2010 apprenticeships have been gaining popularity, with more employers opting to train their own talent and the new Apprenticeship Levy designed to help fund the growing number of trainees. In Norfolk and Suffolk apprenticeship uptake is 7%, compared to 6% nationally, according to LEP figures.
Despite a threefold rise in fees university attendance has also been on an upward trend. Institutions have responded by opening up more places to maximise income, but 2017’s slight drop in place acceptances drew many universities up short.
The academic pro-vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia Prof Neil Ward believes there is “still real value in the traditional degree model”, putting the drop down to a demographic decrease in the number of 18-year-olds nationally.
But the likes of Taylor Gathercole, founder of tech start-up Fox Studio, believes there can still be a detrimental pressure on students to choose university. “I feel it’s only catered for certain occupations. People need to remember that there are more options out there,” he said.
Apprenticeship schemes – Cranswick Country Foods
Pork producer Cranswick runs four apprenticeship programmes in engineering, farming, butchery and abattoir work.
The number of apprentices employed at its facility in Watton has risen dramatically in the past month from five to 14 across the four courses, with capacity for another 12.
HR manager at Cranswick Sam Smith said apprenticeships help the company to “develop people who live and breathe our ethos”.
“Apprenticeships enable us to invest in people who are keen to learn, particularly in areas of our business where we must retain talent to continue to grow.”
She added that many senior figures within the company had started in entry-level positions at Cranswick’s factory or farming units.
The company’s Norfolk production facility churns out 3 million sausages and 1.2 million pork retail packs every week.
‘There is value in traditional degrees’
Prof Neil Ward, academic pro-vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia, believes a degree course can offer students more than a qualification.
Alongside traditional degrees UEA offers vocational courses – which around one-third of its students study – and will also soon be offering degree apprenticeships.
“We do not believe these will replace conventional degrees,” Prof Ward said.
“The majority of employers looking for graduates want general graduate skills which develop regardless of what they studied. These include independence, confidence, and critical reasoning, which is right at the heart of a graduate. A residential university experience also helps to establish a new social network, and in terms of earnings there is a graduate premium.”
He added: “We are seeing more interest in vocational courses and apprenticeships, but there are record numbers of people participating in higher education.”
The legal profession – Birketts
In the legal profession, a degree from a top university is still seen as the most attractive attribute in a candidate.
Shaun Savory, HR director at Birketts, said while more employers were considering apprenticeships the traditional two-year training contract route – employing graduates after they have completed a vocational law practice course – was still preferred. Birketts takes on 22 such trainees each year.
“The legal industry has been challenged on being an elitist industry. It is a concern for us,” Mr Savory said.
“It is going to be a slow process for apprenticeships to replace training contracts. These contracts take less time and are more cost-effective.
“We are not seeing a compelling reason to shift away from traditional models yet, but we are looking at how we can augment them.”
He added that changes to the law practice course, meaning it could be funded by the Apprenticeship Levy, may speed up the transition.
Training veterans – Warren Services
Richard Bridgman, founder and owner of engineering firm Warren Services in Thetford, is a big advocate of apprenticeships and sits on the New Anglia LEP’s skills board.
The company is preparing to train its first two degree apprentices, who completed a year’s work experience at its factory after training to NVQ Level 3.
Cailum Wilson, 20, from Saham Toney, completed an engineering diploma at University Technical College Norfolk. “Because experience is survival in this industry, I felt the degree apprenticeship was a better choice than going to university. I feel it will be more valuable.”
Harry Harvey, 19, from East Harling, studied electrical engineering at West Suffolk College. “I have learned a lot of practical things at Warren, electrical and mechanical.
“I like the idea of going to university, but experience is vital in this industry.”
Mr Bridgman added: “We’re finding this route better than what we had in the past.”
The student’s view
Tom Wright, account manager at marketing firm Clark St James, left school at 16 to begin work as a tradesman, but said learning in his own time rekindled his passion for education.
The 31-year-old went on to complete an undergraduate degree and a masters in history before taking a job with the Norwich company.
He said: “Going into a trade seemed to be the only logical option open to me. It took me a few years of living that life to know it was not for me.
“For my peer group at secondary school it was a case of learning a trade rather than going to college or university. Looking back on it I think of it more in class terms – they were the expected ambitions for who we were.
“I went through school accepting that was the best path for me but it turned out my skills were placed elsewhere.”
He added: “When I left school I had not uncovered that passion [for learning] through regular education.”