What does the Journey to a Million mean for employers developing their apprenticeship provision?

Jason Holt, Chief Executive, Holts Group of Companies

The surge in student numbers by the end of this decade presents both a threat to the prospects of the young people who may miss out on education or training opportunities, but also a clear opportunity for employers to capitalise, by hiring students directly as apprentices. UCAS has widely reported that nearly half of students that are interested in undergraduate study are also interested in apprenticeships, but supply of apprenticeship opportunities remains limited.

Before we look forward to this, let’s go back a decade to the 2012 Holt report.i Here, I highlighted many issues which persist today for employers. What is the apprenticeships ‘brand’? How should we talk about apprenticeships to raise awareness? How should we deal with employers’ lacking capacity to take on apprentices? Despite improved engagement with small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) since the report, the Journey to a Million allows us to think about these issues once again and their potential solutions, as I set out below. 

Get the SME package right

Raising awareness of the full range of apprenticeship opportunities, from the large global brands to the SME market, is a shared challenge across the education sector. The four million businesses in the UK, of which 99% are SMEs, are the untapped key that could unlock the pent-up demand for apprenticeships. Of these businesses, 90% have not engaged with apprenticeships at all.ii  If even 10% of this group are able to make use of government support to employ apprentices, it would go a long way to solving the issue of apprenticeship supply — not just for the Journey to a Million, but to support a greater proportion of young people becoming apprentices in the long term. 

We know that SMEs are more likely to take on younger apprentices, who go on to thrive within these organisations. However, the barriers that SMEs face to hiring their first apprentice are substantial, so support for SMEs to jump over this first hurdle is vital. There has been progress in this area, with organisations such as CBI, FSB, Chambers of Commerce — voices which are highly respected and trusted to SME owners — extoling the benefits of hiring apprentices. But more can be done in this area. How do SMEs get better service from training providers to help with this initial recruitment?

Fixing this problem requires work from SMEs to aggregate demand, either by working together directly or via professional bodies/membership organisations to engage with training providers. However, this work must be matched by government, membership organisations and other intermediaries (building on Local Enterprise Partnerships and the skills plan) and there must be financial incentives for providers to engage with SMEs and bonus payments to SMEs to take on apprentices. A smarter use of levy transfer would also be welcome in this area.

There are other benefits to being an apprentice at an SME. SMEs are very different organisations to larger businesses, with more fluidity and variety in roles, and being more likely to operate in niche areas and in exciting start-ups. SMEs can provide for a more holistic and dynamic experience for apprentices. However, SMEs, especially start-ups, are those that need the most support to hire apprentices, and with less institutional knowledge to train up employees themselves. Apprentices often need more support, but the perception that an apprentice is burdensome must change. Here, support from training providers is vital to help ensure apprentices thrive in the workplace.

There is a compelling story to be told that young apprentices already break the ‘mould’ of doing an undergraduate course and are likely to have right disposition for the start-up environment. A campaign to engage start-ups as well as would-be apprentices could be an effective way to help match young people into opportunities at these employers. There is a clear need for employer profiles and case studies to tell this story and provide positive reasons why a young person may opt for an apprenticeship at an SME, rather than larger organisation with better brand recognition.

Access for all

Access to apprenticeships is a mixed picture, and information acts as a huge barrier for young people to engage with apprenticeships. UCAS insights show one in three students don’t receive information about apprenticeshipsiii, and 73% of students find it easy to access information about undergraduate study, compared to 26% for apprenticeships. Thus, engagement with schools is necessary, with UCAS well positioned to do this work. 

However, access work must look beyond improving information to students. We need to ensure, as seen in university recruitment, increased focus on unpicking the barriers to entry for apprenticeships. It is untrue to say apprenticeships offer a route for disadvantaged students, particularly at higher levels — as reported by the Sutton Trust, just 13% of degree apprenticeships come from neighbourhoods in the bottom fifth of deprivation, whereas twice as many (27%) come from the most advantaged backgrounds.iv Promoting a widening access agenda for apprenticeships will not only enhance the contribution to social mobility these routes offer, but also offer direct benefit to employers as they recruit a more diverse and talented workforce. 

We know that degree apprentices tend to be older, but to really unlock the potential of this pathway, and safeguard the interest of students as we approach the Journey to a Million, specific pathways for young apprentices need to be safeguarded. These would-be apprentices will likely have less work experience than their more mature competitors, but measures need to be put in place to allow recruiters to recruit this untapped talent — the rough diamonds. 

Immersive learning

Finally, the solution to increasing the supply of apprenticeships requires thinking outside of the box and considering — what does the university/training provider of the future look like? We have seen throughout the pandemic that online learning is effective, but there lies greater opportunity with more immersive experiences in the metaverse — limited not just to VR headsets, but an entire virtual world. Linking back to the SMEs, many employers simply do not have the resource to dispatch staff members to engage with their provider for their off the job training. Virtual engagement in the metaverse can allow smaller organisations to teach the practical and operational skills which without having to send staff around the country, allowing for engagement with a wide pool of talent, especially from rural areas. Moreover, a key benefit of the virtual environment is the lack of barriers for scalability; where the Journey to a Million puts real pressure on physical infrastructure and the space that our higher education and training providers have, this is simply not the case for engagement in the metaverse. 


The Journey to a Million will undoubtedly add to the growing number of students that wish to progress along the apprenticeship route. We know today that 300,000 students interested in undergraduate study are interested in apprenticeships, yet there are only 4,700 starts for 18- and 19-year-olds at Level 4 and above.v As we approach the million, we need to unlock the supply of apprenticeship opportunities for young people. The answer to this lies in technological innovation (where the UK is far behind many other countries), as well as the opportunities to come SMEs that have the potential to help address inclusivity and skills gaps concerns that we have today. 

i Jason Holt (2012), Making apprenticeships more accessible to small and medium-sized enterprises.

ii Ibid.

iii UCAS (2021), What influences the choices school leavers make?

iv Katherine Doherty and Erica Holt-White (2021), Apprenticeship outreach: engaging with under-represented groups to improve social mobility.

v Department for Education (January 2023), Apprenticeships and traineeships statistics 2022/23.

Jason Holt

Chief Executive, Holts Group of Companies

Jason Holt CBE is a British entrepreneur and social change advocate, with a track record in promoting vocational training and employment opportunities for young people. In addition to co-founding several businesses in various sectors, Holt has been actively involved in policy-making and social entrepreneurship. 

Holt co-founded the Association of Apprentices in 2021, which aims to provide support and representation to apprentices across the UK. He also authored the Holt Review in 2012, which provided recommendations to the UK government on how to engage more small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in apprenticeships. 

Holt is a passionate advocate for learning in the metaverse, and he co-founded Holition, a creative agency that specializes in developing immersive experiences using augmented reality and other emerging technologies. He has also co-founded Metaverse Learning, which focuses on providing training programs for learners in all areas of technical education, and Metaverse Hub, which aims to foster innovation and collaboration in the virtual world. 

In addition to his entrepreneurial work, Holt has gone on to become a trusted advisor to the British Government and to successive skills ministers. Having chaired a number of Boards to support the Government’s apprenticeship reforms, including the Apprenticeship Stakeholder Board and Apprenticeship Ambassador Network. 

Holt believes that technology can play a transformative role in education and workforce development, and he is committed to working with partners to drive innovation and improve the educational experience for learners and employers.