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Developing your workforce through master’s level apprenticeships

By Professor Lynette Ryals


Apprenticeships are mostly recognised as another entry route to higher skills, raising the status of vocational education and work-based learning. But the real impact of the apprenticeships levy for the UK will come from the recruitment of middle and senior managers as ‘apprentices’ at Master’s degree level (the top level 7 in the apprenticeship scale).


UK plc needs skills at the highest levels. Our experience of working with some of the major businesses driving innovation in sectors like aerospace, transport systems and manufacturing, has shown us why. Most obviously there’s the well-documented shortage of people with skills in areas like engineering and in the science and technology fields. The problem is exacerbated by the way in which employers are having to go fishing in the same pool for their talent - a qualified engineer might just as well be working in the manufacturing sector as in transport.


The main issue, then, is about creating specialists. Industries are moving far beyond gaining efficiencies through digitisation to the kinds of fundamental transformation made possible by autonomous systems and the smart use of sensors, big data and the Internet of Things. Master’s level apprenticeships are going to be a critical mechanism for the UK to lead the evolution of industry into these kinds of 4.0 models - smaller, smarter, more networked - and deliver the expertise needed to make it happen. The nature of the apprenticeships, employer-led but with a backbone of academic rigour and Quality Assurance from Higher Education, is ideal for moving experienced generalists into specialists addressing specific business challenges.


A related challenge for technology-based industries is leadership. Employees tend to be promoted on the basis of technical ability and can find themselves in roles without the management skills to operate effectively - and most importantly, be able to lead periods of change and innovation. Effective managers are in demand in general: Government data has shown that a further one million will be needed by 2020. The Chartered Management Institute claims 150,000 UK managers take on roles they’re not prepared for each year. The kind of ongoing learning for senior-level staff provided by apprenticeships will be an opportunity to fill gaps in management capabilities, linking up technical advances with the practical implications of delivery and commercialisation within specific organisational and market context. 


Linking apprenticeships to postgraduate study brings a sudden change in status, and has the potential to bring the UK more in line with Germany, which has benefited from more appreciation of the value of high-level and specialist vocational education. The complication is around branding and the way in which ‘apprenticeships’ have been, and still are, being perceived by employers and the public. Are there senior managers who won’t raise an eyebrow at the idea of becoming an ‘apprentice’? Providers in HE need to work with Government on overcoming this barrier. At Cranfield we are using the concept of ‘Mastership’ as an alternative, and arguably more fitting, branding to position the new level 7 offering. We’ve also made a commitment to making the level 7 apprenticeship experience the same as that for any other postgraduate participating in executive-style education, the same admissions process, same demands in terms of qualifications and experience.

Development pathways

For the large employers paying the apprenticeship levy from this April the need to engage with the apprenticeships initiative will be clear in financial terms, in the importance of re-couping their investment. But we also need to make sure they see the much wider potential for organisational development for the long-term. Offering Masterships will be important for retention, for providing talent with longer-term development pathways, for giving UK employees the chance to study alongside international postgraduate students, and, as has been spelt out, for creating a spearhead of specialists for transformation.  

Masterships matter

Whatever the terms of Brexit, there are likely to be further challenges ahead for industry when it comes to recruiting for specific and high level technical skills. Masterships matter even more in this environment, and for the long-term in positioning the UK’s tech and engineering industries. Realistically that’s not as the world-leader in innovation, but working with the US, China and others as the first choice partner. 

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Read more about the Apprenticeship Levy

Tags: Cranfield School of Management, leadership, talent, learning