Apprenticeships key to social mobility and economic growth

Apprenticeships key to social mobility and economic growth

Improving social mobility, and better education and training, are key to addressing the UK’s productivity gap, says a new report from The 5% Club.

In its report, the group sets out recommendations for business leaders and government to drive social mobility while ensuring inclusive growth.

Six per cent of VGC staff are currently enrolled on ‘earn and learn’ positions at various levels – ahead of industry targets.

“For many years VGC has been committed to the development of our workforce,” said Simon Clamp, VGC’s learning and development manager. “As part of our on-going commitment to staff development I am pleased to say we are already ahead of the five per cent apprentice target, with six per cent of our staff enrolled on apprentice schemes at various levels.”

Varied prospects for social mobility

A person’s family circumstances can still dictate their employment prospects. Young people from disadvantaged families are a third more likely to drop out of education at 16 to pursue lower-skilled, lower-paid and insecure jobs. And where a child lives has a profound impact on their prospects for social mobility. Regional disparities in the UK are now wider than in any other western European country (Social Market Foundation).

At the same time, with many areas of the economy experiencing skills shortages, employers are increasingly looking at what action can be taken to increase diversity in their businesses to attract the most talented people.

According to The 5% Club, the provision of ‘earn and learn’ training opportunities is key. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds must be made aware of the many technical and vocational options available. ‘Earn and learn’ training opportunities, such as apprenticeships, offer people the chance to be paid while training on-the-job, and can provide long term, fulfilling careers. At present, because of a lack of awareness, businesses are still missing out on some of the brightest and best talent. This stifles the country’s economic growth and lets down young people who are most in need of support and opportunity.

Leo Quinn, chairman and founder of The 5% Club, and group chief executive of Balfour Beatty, explains:

“Business leaders and government urgently need to join forces to address the lack of social mobility in the UK today. Central to this is raising awareness amongst young people from less advantaged backgrounds about going down the route of ‘earn and learn’ to start building long-term careers while being paid. Many of our key industries are crying out for skilled workers to train on the job – so it’s a tragedy if we fail to reach those who desperately need this chance.

“As employers we must ensure that traditional recruitment methods are not inherently discriminatory. We must open up early work experience or internships to all – the first vital step into the world of work. Equally, positive careers advice in schools can tear down the perception that apprenticeships are ‘second best.’ And we must all press government to transform the apprenticeship levy into a broader skills levy.

Dalbir and James on A14
VGC labour manager James Burke (R) with Dalbir Singh, one of VGC’s apprentices on the A14 project

“If we really want to unlock social mobility, we must work together to open the gates on a flood of untapped talent, helping society as a whole but also dramatically improving Britain’s economic prospects.”


The report, ‘Playing to our strengths: Unlocking social mobility for economic good,’ involved consultation with The 5% Club’s members. It recommends:

  • Employers must develop strong links with schools and colleges in deprived areas, and increase the access young people in those areas have to workplaces, mentors and work experience. Work placements are particularly valuable for young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, giving them access to the work environment and improving employability.
  • Employers must examine their recruitment processes to ensure they understand where talented applicants from different backgrounds fall through the cracks (for example, the unnecessary process of requesting degrees for non-graduate roles). Support should extend beyond those at entry level. Employers should also examine whether there are internal barriers within the company that hamper those from disadvantaged backgrounds from progressing up the career ladder, as well as personal development.
  • There must be an improved awareness and understanding of what apprenticeships are, what they offer and the levels available, to address outdated perceptions that they are ‘second best.’ Effective careers advice should be offered throughout schools to ensure that all young people have an understanding of the range of jobs and industries they could work in. Learning about the workplace during the primary school years should also be increased.
  • The apprenticeship levy should be evolved into a broader skills levy, with increased flexibility to allow it to be spent on other types of high-quality technical skills training.
  • Funding for the further education sector needs to be stabilised. Relationships with employers must be strengthened – with both further education providers and employers taking responsibility for making this happen. And there must be a period of consolidation, to allow for the reforms to become established and for the sector to focus on making them a success.

Justin Madders, MP and chair of APPG on social mobility, supports the conclusions of The 5% Club’s report. He says:

Simon Clamp
Simon Clamp, VGC’s learning and development manager

“Improving social mobility is not only important from a moral standpoint but an economic one as well. By widening access, organisations benefit from an increased pool of skills and experience; the more a company’s staff reflect their customers the greater understanding they will have of their wishes. Having diverse workforces, which encompass many different talents, backgrounds and experiences is crucial if we are to develop dynamic organisations. Improving social mobility is vital for the future of individuals, employers and the country as a whole.”

“We have always looked to recruit local people for local projects,” continued Simon (pictured). “We have built strong links with local schools and prisons, with a series of workshops and career advice. These partnerships have led to the successful recruitment and employment of people who may not have ordinarily considered careers in construction.

“Unlike some employers we pay our apprentices more than the minimum rate: they get the site rate for the trade they have chosen. We believe this is morally right. And it gives them the chance to use their earnings to better their circumstances or that of their families.

“The 5% Club is a great forum for promotion of these initiatives. If we all play our part, the opportunities for young people can only improve.”

Main photograph: five of VGC’s apprentices who recently completed NVQs in railway engineering.

The 5% Club is an employer-led organisation, which encourages employers to create as many ‘earn and learn’ opportunities as possible. Members aspire to have 5% of their workforce undertaking ‘earn and learn’ within five years of joining The 5% Club.