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Companies Need To Connect With Parents To Improve Apprenticeship Recruitment

CEO, Ben Marks speaks about the apprenticeship system in an article for Gerard Kelly & Partners.
Ben Marks
Ben Marks

Ben is YouthSight's founder and CEO. He's a well-renowned personality in the market research industry and has great connections with the MRS and HEPI.

CEO, Ben Marks speaks about the apprenticeship system in an article for Gerard Kelly & Partners.

In an article first published by Gerard Kelly & Partners (GKP) YouthSight's chief executive, Ben Marks, made his case for the apprenticeship system to devote more attention to winning over the hearts and minds of parents. 

For students looking for a practical, work-based method of learning, apprenticeships should provide a hugely compelling alternative to traditional academic routes. But it’s not turned out that way. In recent years the numbers of young people starting apprenticeships have either plateaued or fallen. Why? I believe that the problem lies as much on the ‘demand side’ as the ‘supply side’ and that if providers were able to take a leaf out the book of university marketers, and aim more of their marketing fire-power at parents, they might do a lot better.

The failure of the apprenticeship system is a bit of an enigma. After decades in the doldrums, the structure for delivery of a coherent system seems to be in place. The National Apprenticeship Service and the Apprenticeship Levy should provide coordination and funding; employers have been able to develop many new ‘standards’ (subjects) – around 350 are now on offer. And there is a good range of levels, from the entry-level Intermediate apprenticeship right through to degree-equivalent apprenticeships. So why did the number of young people starting apprenticeships nose-dive last year?

Part of the reason has to do with employer incentives in adopting the schemes – something I’m not really qualified to write about. But part of the problem may also rest on the demand-side and, as a market researcher, that is something my company tends to get more involved with.

Could it be that those who provide and promote apprenticeships could attract more high calibre candidates – the ones employers are crying out to train – if they spent more time thinking about the influence of parents?

Parents set the tone and tempo of family life and, inevitably, influence their kids’ aspirations and ambitions. They affect the information their children get exposed to and the options they become positively disposed to. During the 1990s and 2000s, higher education won a communications war. Universities stopped being considered an elitist choice and instead became an aspirational choice – something for the many not the few. Part of the breakthrough came when universities started setting up sophisticated marketing programmes aimed directly at parents.

When I went off to university in the late 1980s, the open days I attended and the choices I made were largely in isolation from my family. That was the norm then. Today our research tells us that university choice is far more of a family discussion. Our long-running Higher Expectations tracking survey shows that by 2007 over 42% of applicants on open day visits were accompanied by their mothers. And the trend has grown. By 2017 the figure was 53%.

When parents turn up to open days they don’t just tag along and fend for themselves. There is a huge array of targeted resources; from special prospectuses to well-crafted parent talks by the vice-chancellor, through to walkways plastered in six-foot high logos of the prestigious companies that recruit from the university – walkways aimed exclusively at parents! For university marketing professionals, parents are a critically important stakeholder group.

At YouthSight as well as conducting a lot of quantitative research, we also conduct much qualitative research. And we have learned that the style of parental involvement in HE decision-making is generally collaborative. It is most strongly manifested when prospective students seek help in narrowing down their final choices of institution and course. The help provided by parents is rarely authoritative. It’s generally about facilitating their child’s happiness. We’ve a nice video of young people describing how their parents help them here.

Why have parents become such a key group in the last couple of decades? It can be explained - at least in part - by the megatrends around wealth. Thanks to the way property prices skyrocketed in the past 20 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth towards older people. This makes it very hard for either party, the children or the parents, to expect the levels of independence and separateness that they did in ‘my day’. Simple economics means parents are going to have to remain involved and ‘helpful’ to their children for far longer. For example, those born in the 1980s were the first post-war cohort not to start working life on higher real incomes than their parents when they started their careers. And the disparities have only worsened since.

In terms of overall assets, Millennials and Gen Z are far worse off than Baby Boomers and Gen Xers were at the same age. And then there’s the “Generation Rent” crisis. Those born in the 1980s spend three times more of their income on housing than their grandparents and enjoy the lowest levels of home ownership (compared to earlier cohorts at the same age) since the 1930s. Add to that very high tuition fees and ever-growing debt and it shows how tough it’s going to be for young people. They will need help from their parents, and HE recruiters know it.

Of course, parents didn’t engineer this situation. It just happened. And with the growth in more child-centred parenting it’s understandable that parents take a closer role in their kid’s career choices. So, what are apprentice providers doing to cater for parental involvement in decision making? Are they doing enough? Many of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place. The popular press seems to understand the value of apprenticeships (if anything they’re rather hostile to university degrees, especially those they perceive as offering ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses). And there’s huge hostility among both parents and young people to the debt they are being forced to take on as part of a university education.

But the communications battle that universities won in the 1990s and 2000s - that the degree is a passport to success - seems to have gone unchallenged. Perhaps it’s time apprentice providers changed tack and took the fight to parents.