Euan Blair, CEO of WhiteHat, explains why apprenticeships should be a real alternative to a degree and what they’re doing to make this happen.

The apprenticeship landscape is rapidly changing, thanks to a powerful combination of government legislation and a growing dissatisfaction amongst young people with the learning experience and levels of debt attached to a university education. When you add an increasing employer demand for junior employees who can bring something new to the table into the mix, we believe that the resulting opportunity is a once in a generation chance to transform the way that both the education and employment systems work for young people.

We’re WhiteHat, and our mission is to create a diverse group of future leaders and build an outstanding alternative to university. We are focused on ensuring that come 2030, 35% of all school leavers will decide to pursue an apprenticeship as their path to an incredible career.

We were founded out of a belief that the current system is imperfect right now: the assumption is that if you want a great job, you have to get a degree. This means a large number of high potential candidates are missing out because they either can’t afford to or don’t want to go to university. Our greatest challenge is to change the perceptions of apprenticeships that these students, their parents, their teachers and their future employers currently hold. Our solution is to show young people how they can benefit from applied learning in the workplace, and to demonstrate to employers that they benefit from engaging with a broader demographic of entry level talent. We’re using apprenticeships to democratise access to the best opportunities and drive greater social mobility.

We focus on three main areas to defy perceptions and achieve our mission. The first; giving young people a means to showcase their potential to employers, rather than having to rely purely on academic grades and work experience. We do this by matching prospective apprentices to opportunities based on competencies like conscientiousness, emotional intelligence, and resilience, and by allowing them to build digital profiles as an alternative to the CV.

The second; providing incredible content, so that apprenticeship delivery can rival the learning experience at top universities. We’ve partnered with organisations like General Assembly, Mind Gym and Learnitect to give apprentices access to a huge range of high-impact content.

The third; helping apprentices build their social capital and networks. This is what we refer to as “career-hacking,” providing apprentices with access to mentors who can give them guidance, teaching them what to expect in interview and assessment processes, and ensuring they’re set up to succeed in their chosen career. We also give all of our apprentices access to insight days at companies ranging from Google to Unilever and support them through our Future Leaders Foundation, taught alongside their apprenticeship and focused on encouraging a growth mindset.

We have already seen our first cohort of apprentices graduate from their qualifications and go on to brilliant new roles – some staying on with their employers and receiving exciting promotions, others being headhunted to join new organisations. The impact that an apprenticeship has had on their self-confidence and employability is evident; and we believe that our programmes can have wide-ranging benefits across the UK.

The country is suffering from severe skill shortages in key parts of the economy, with technical and digital skills in particular cited by employers as not being a big enough focus in either the school or university systems. Our apprenticeship pathways are being designed to solve this problem; a generation of people taught via applied learning, with an emphasis on building skills alongside knowledge, will be able to fill this shortage.

The issue is exacerbated by a lack of diversity in key industries. Research that highlights the positive impact, both culturally and economically, of building a diverse workforce is comprehensive and robust; yet in industries such as tech, finance, media, and law, individuals from BAME and FSM backgrounds are woefully underrepresented. Companies are aware that this needs to change, but by and large remain unsure of how to access talent from these groups. By encouraging employers in these sectors to take on apprentices, we can start to remedy the problem.

50% of the applicants that come to WhiteHat have claimed free school meals during their school years; 65% are non-white. We ensure that we reach out to students from London’s most deprived boroughs through school visits and outreach, to help build aspiration into these school leavers’ career decisions. We have recently worked with WeWork and their partner Breaking Barriers to place our first refugee apprentice, and we’re constantly looking for new channels to widen access. These success stories are not only crucial in helping to challenge wider societal perceptions about apprenticeships; they provide those that follow in their footsteps both with inspiring role models and much-needed advocates for broadening access.

Entrenched perceptions are the key reason why what we’re building must be of the highest quality. Apprenticeships have been undermined by decades of poor provision and a lack of imagination. If they are to be taken seriously by the world’s best employers and form a permanent part of the landscape to challenge or even subsume graduate schemes, they need to be seen as equipping people with skills to rival what is taught at the best universities. We don’t think it’s enough to teach apprentices just how to be good in the specific field they’re going into. We want to create professionals who are adaptable enough to thrive if, or indeed when, their industries are disrupted and the nature of their discipline changes, people who have a broad view of the world and how to approach problem solving. A generation of future leaders.

Whitehat match non-graduate talent with apprenticeship opportunities at some of the UK’s most exciting companies. They deliver training through a combination of 1:1 coaching and cutting-edge tech, offering apprenticeships that genuinely rival the learning experience at elite universities.

See all of the Sutton Trust #BetterApprenticeships campaign guest blogs.