New CIPD research investigating alternative routes into work reveals that government’s preoccupation with sending more and more students into Higher Education may be misplaced. The report investigates a number of careers and professions that have seen a large increase in the proportion of graduates doing them in recent decades, finding that alternative routes to going to university are possible in order to access them, which often incur a lower cost on the learner. In this article, Ben Willmott provides an overview of the research, arguing that government should consider investing more money in vocation education rather than HE, as doing so may result in better outcomes for learners and government.

Government pre-occupation with getting more and more young people through university is not justified given the employment outcomes for many students and the associated costs, our new report, Alternative pathways into the labour market has shown. In fact, for a wide range of occupations which have seen significant increases in graduate rates over the last 35 years, alternative routes into employment are possible and less costly, with a smaller proportion of this lower cost falling on the learner.

The new research considers 29 occupations, which together account for nearly 30% of employment in the UK and over 30% of the work performed by graduates currently. It shows that for many of these jobs, while the numbers of graduates has increased in the role very significantly over the period from 1979 to 2014, in many instances the level of skill required to do the job has not changed appreciably.

For example, 35% of new bank and post office clerks are now graduates compared to 1979 when just 3.5% of bank and post office clerks held degrees, while 42.9% of police officers at the rank of sergeant and below entering the police force now hold degrees compared to 1979 when less than 2% of police officers of similar rank were graduates.

Similarly, 41% of new recruits in property, housing and estate management are graduates compared to 3.6% in 1979. Nearly four in ten of newly employed teaching assistants enter those jobs with a degree – as late as 1999, only 5.6% of the occupation as a whole did so.

The report shows clearly how the huge increase in the supply of graduates over the last 35 years has resulted in more and more occupations and professions being colonised by people with degrees regardless of whether they actually need them to do the job.

This is not good for graduates who are increasingly finding themselves in roles which don’t meet their career expectations while saddled with high levels of debt. This ‘graduatisation’ of the labour market is also not good for non-graduates who find themselves being overlooked for jobs just because they have not got a degree even if a degree is not needed to do the job. Finally, this situation is also bad for employers and the economy as this type of qualification and skills mismatch is associated with lower levels of employee engagement and loyalty and will undermine attempts to boost productivity.

The research finds that employers have a key role in addressing this situation by ceasing to require job applicants to have a degree for non-graduate roles. This would broaden organisations’ ability to recruit from a wider talent pool and give students with vocational qualifications greater chances to access work.

However, changes are also required to the Government’s skills policy if parity of esteem between higher education and alternative pathways into the labour market is to be achieved.

In response to the research, the CIPD is calling for the provision of improved careers advice and guidance in schools, underpinned by clear minimum standards.

There also needs to be change to apprenticeship policy, with far more focus on improving the quality of apprenticeship provision rather than the current emphasis on hitting a target of three million apprenticeship starts by 2020. CIPD research suggests that, while the forthcoming apprenticeship levy will boost numbers of apprenticeships, it will result in the creation of proportionally more intermediate level 2 apprenticeships than advanced and higher apprenticeships at level 3 and above.

Consequently, the CIPD is calling for the levy to be repositioned as a more flexible training or skills levy to prevent employers from being incentivised to invest more in typically shorter level 2 apprenticeships so they can re-claim their levy investment. A more flexible levy would also stop employers from seeking to re-badge existing training as apprenticeships, again an issue highlighted by our research.

In addition, the CIPD has called on Government to ensure its forthcoming industrial strategy has a clear focus on improving workplace practices to create more high skilled jobs through partnerships with employers, unions representative bodies at a national, sectoral and local level.

About the author

Ben Willmott, Head of Public Policy

Ben leads the CIPD’s Public Policy team, which works to inform and shape debate, government policy and legislation in order to enable higher performance at work and better pathways into work for those seeking employment. His particular research and policy areas of interest include employment relations, employee engagement and wellbeing, absence and stress management, and leadership and management capability.

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