Of the three main post-secondary pathways, going to university remains the default choice across the UK in 2024. But for apprenticeships and early careers opportunities, despite all their unique benefits so suited to today’s cost-of-living crisis, it remains a battle for a distant second place.

Apprenticeships are an underutilised and misunderstood route toward a raft of positive outcomes. Earlier wages, debt-free learning, and exposure to employment and experience all read like a dream wishlist for young people facing their post-18 decisions – but somewhere along the way, something’s going wrong. 

The UCAS Early Careers and Apprenticeships Report, based on 2023/24 data, has highlighted six key areas where development is needed and how we can support young people to make better decisions regarding their futures. Here’s a sneak peek of what to expect:

1. Capitalise and consolidate during data-proven peaks of interest

Interest in apprenticeship and employment rises and falls in three stages:
  • In Year 9, ~50% of young people are considering both routes.
  • In Year 10/11, it climbs and peaks at ~60%.
  • In Year 12, it drops sharply to its lowest levels, at sub -50%.

That middle phase is a key battleground for apprenticeship providers and employers to win potential prospects over, and an important stage for schools to make sure young people have the resources they need to make informed decisions.

Mythbusting and fact finding campaigns, as well as inspirational content showcasing the reality of apprenticeship and employment life, will help maintain momentum and answer objections before they become disinterested.

Read more in Chapter One – Inspiration & Discovery.

2. Build happiness and enjoyment into practical decision-making processes

No generation prior to this has been more mental health conscious, or more aware of how their mindsets affect their outcomes. For those pursuing apprenticeships and employment, our data shows that nothing is more important to them than ‘enjoying my job’. 

And whilst we also know that earning money is a key reason for much of the interest in these pathways, it’s not what excites them. 

Make happiness, enjoyment, and contentment the emotional drivers of your post-18 campaigns. Practical facts are important, but inspiration is going to come from seeing the positivity of each route and how each one’s USPs will appeal to different preferences.

Read more in Chapter Two – Feelings & Happiness.

3. Provide opportunities for experience in whatever shape or form you can

95% of young people consider work experience important for making informed choices about apprenticeships, but 91% need more help in developing key employability skills. With experience comes confidence and, crucially, the ability to visualise oneself in a role – something that doesn’t come naturally to young people growing up in a degree-dominated world.

Highlight experience in all its forms, not just direct hands-on work time. Provide these opportunities not just for experience’s sake, but as a way to test or confirm their interest in different careers and pathways. It doesn’t always have to be a formal placement, sometimes simply hearing from somebody who’s been-there-done-that can be transformational in showing the realities of apprenticeship or employment life.

Read more in Chapter Three – Experience.

4. Undo the uncertainties and meet misconceptions head on

We are slowly, but very surely, moving away from the stigmatic view that apprenticeships are second rate. But there are plenty of other misconceptions and uncertainties that still play havoc with post-secondary decision making.

From thinking that apprenticeships are more stressful, to assuming you can’t get to university via this route, and even to those who believe that they face a lot of competition – we need to focus on truths and unique benefits. Earlier experience, debt-free learning, and equivalent career outcomes are important drivers for apprenticeship campaigns.

Read more in Chapter Four – Confidence.

5. Tackle contradictions that are holding back decision-making

Independence is a driving force in post-secondary choices, perhaps at its strongest for apprenticeships and employment where wages come sooner.

But the same amount of young people who value those earlier wages also envisage them being low, and whilst a quarter recognise that they’ll get a relevant qualification via an apprenticeship, even more are concerned they’ll earn less than they might get with ‘more’ qualifications via different pathways.

Mythbusting is, once again, an essential marketing tactic. But we also need to work harder to equip parents and carers with the answers. They’re a primary influence on young people and many are already on board with apprenticeships and employment, they just need the tools to back it up.

Read more in Chapter Five – Independence & Empowerment.

6. Dispel the belief that choices are binary funnels

Our data shows that aspirations are split into two distinct parts.

  1. The practical, career-driven path with its traditional route of good exams to good earnings, to buying a nice house, having a family, and so on.
  2. The inspirational, experience-driven path which gives more time to explore options, work in the community, or travel.

But there’s no reason why a young person can’t have both, and if they think this is an ‘either/or’ decision then they’re going to self-disqualify from potential opportunities. 

Highlight the overlaps of career vs. experience driven pathways. University, apprenticeships, and employment can all offer the perceived benefits of both of those paths. There’s no reason why a job-focused young person can’t also enjoy travel, as part of their journey – and there’s no reason why exploration-focused young people can’t expect comparable career outcomes. It’s not a this-or-that game.

Read more in Chapter Six – Control.

UCAS Early Careers & Apprenticeships Report

Download the UCAS Early Careers & Apprenticeships Report (1.38 MB) for the full story – and read all 18 key action points – to enable better decision-making for young people.

This insight comes at a point where there is the biggest economic opportunity in more than a generation. With a growing 18 year old population, that continues through until the end of the decade, and increasing recognition, employers have the opportunity to tackle talent shortages and only UCAS can enable all these opportunities to be presented side-by-side on one platform.