Higher level apprenticeships offer smart route to careers for young people

The option of a degree apprenticeship is increasingly being recognised as a valuable proposition for both employers and employees
Caroline Van Der Feltz

IT will have been a fraught weekend for many 18-year-olds who received their A-level results at the end of last week, with many now making huge decisions about whether to enter higher education, get a job, take a gap year or re-take their exams.

The option of a degree apprenticeship is perhaps not widely known among young people or their parents, but it is increasingly being recognised as a valuable proposition for both employers and employees.

With the cost of university education having increased substantially in recent years (more than £9,000 a year at some universities in England), a rising number of young people are now actively considering programmes that allow them to earn as they learn.

Last year, Danske Bank launched a bespoke higher-level apprenticeship programme for post A-level students in partnership with Ulster University. On the three-year Danske Futures programme, school-leavers get paid work experience in the banking sector while studying for a BSc honours degree in managing the customer contact.

Ten apprentices took up roles last autumn in personal banking, small business and operations teams across the regional branch network and this year we are recruiting another 10 to join the scheme (closing date to apply at is August 27).

It's a way to ensure we have the right skills in the business to meet our evolving future banking needs, to bring innovation and fresh ideas, and to tap into talent before they leave university. By looking at raw talent early we can help shape them into the future leaders we need and instil the attributes and attitudes we want in the bank.

Among other things they learn communication skills, the ability to humanise technology, an understanding of financial services and the ability to interact with customers.

For the apprentice it's an opportunity to earn a degree, a £15,000 salary and a job at the end of it – potentially giving them a chance of leaving university without a heavy debt and with three years' more work experience and knowledge of the organisation than other graduates applying for jobs.

While a higher percentage of students go on to university in NI than in other regions of the UK, funding cuts have begun to cause the number of local students to reduce. Families are looking at the outcomes of their investment.

To stop further decline we either need to increase funding for higher education or educate people in different ways. An increase in funding doesn't seem likely – particularly with no Assembly at Stormont - so we are investing £4,000 a year to fund degrees for our apprentices.

It's a regional approach where we place apprentices into local branches and give them operational roles. In Northern Ireland, 80 per cent of university places are in Belfast, which evidence has shown puts some people from rural areas off going to university.

My experience is that people from a rural background and those with a strong work ethic generally place huge importance on the working element of a degree, particularly if they have not gone to university themselves.

So, we need to help parents understand the benefits of their children getting experience in a commercial setting and we also need to educate them about the future of work. Many of the roles on offer now didn't even exist in banking 10 years ago and how we interact with our customers is changing rapidly.

By taking on apprentices we get a bright bunch of school leavers who can influence how we interact with customers like them. This challenges staff who have been with us for a long time to think about those interactions differently. This diversity, in turn, drives different decision-making processes and helps us to be innovative.

Like higher apprenticeships, this programme is tough. Apprentices have to meet high standards of academic attainment and work performance. But it is a form of education that will grow in popularity in years to come.

:: Caroline Van Der Feltz is HR director at Danske Bank

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