The world of early careers has been morphing and changing at what feels like a break-neck speed after many years, if not decades, of stability. Since the late-nineties, the university graduate has ruled the roost and apprenticeships hardly featured on the radar of any early careers professionals as they go out and seek talent for their business.

Then along came degree apprenticeships. Somewhat from left field, it has to be said, but nevertheless they have taken the early careers world by storm. Launched by the Coalition Government and carried forward by the current administration, degree apprenticeships offer a genuine alternative for young school leavers looking for alternative ways to access higher education, and for employers looking to complement graduate hiring and investment of their levy.

The economics make sense for an employer. The cost/benefit ratio is apparent when you compare degree apprenticeships with often fairly high cost graduate programmes. This said, it should be recognised that the degree apprenticeship is a ‘slower burn’ investment. It provides an often younger, less experienced talent pool than with graduate programmes. As such it isn’t a direct replacement but rather a complementary channel that allows you to ‘grow your own’ talent.

Employers are wrestling to find the right mix: certain sectors, such as professional services, are making bold moves towards degree apprenticeships, while other sectors are sticking to their tried and tested models. The pace of change will be driven by the availability of approved degree apprenticeship standards, which is very patchy at the moment but undoubtedly will improve.

If you look at the big four accountancy firms they are taking advantage of the Level 6 and 7 standards recently developed to train up school leavers in parallel to their graduate population – with both arriving at the same end destination point. This offers genuine choice and parity and will help drive greater diversity of hiring as these firms reach into different communities for their talent.

A greater concern is whether there will be sufficient universities able to deliver within increasingly low funding caps. Having £18,000 to deliver a degree through an apprenticeship would raise concerns about covering costs – it’s clearly less attractive to universities tempted to come into the market and is likely to suppress the market choice. The £27,000 leadership and technology standards have created a vibrant market – which shows what can be achieved – but the more recent drive to lower caps may well lead to a rapid slowdown. Only time will tell.

Are degree apprenticeships an effective channel to recruit and develop talent? Well, at Barclays, I would say that the answer is most certainly yes. We have seen a rich, diverse group of apprentices join our programmes from all backgrounds. We have seen great retention and progression rates as well as academic achievement.

As a pathway for social mobility the degree apprenticeship is very powerful, allowing those who cannot go to university because of their personal circumstances a chance to gain a degree and earn at the same time. It is also a great progression pathway for those who may have joined on foundation apprenticeships and want to develop their career.

Finally, one of the real benefits for employers is the chance to invest in the existing workforce, whether that is to re-skill or up-skill in a rapidly changing business environment. For many employees who entered the workforce without a degree, the degree apprenticeship offers a second chance to gain that coveted qualification.

So while there may be room for degree apprenticeships to develop, early signs are that they provide a positive addition to any early career professional’s portfolio.

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