As a nation we have spectacularly failed to provide clear career routes for non-graduates


In the old days – when we were both young – the route from childhood into work was simple. A Levels followed by university for a small elite and an apprenticeship with a local employer for the rest. Today, the route through university to work is chosen by the majority of young women and 40 per cent of young men. Higher education is far from perfect and there are problems such as improving work readiness among some young graduates and ensuring that the ones from less advantaged backgrounds get a fair crack of the whip. But overall it works. It’s a clear and well-trodden route. Young people understand it and employers know where to find large groups of smart young people that they can recruit.

But as a nation we have spectacularly failed to provide similarly clear career routes to four in ten of the UK’s workforce – workers with good GCSEs who haven’t got a degree. For decades public policy has let down this forgotten forty per cent. As a result, social background still matters far more than the skills they have in determining the prospects they have and the wages they get. The ‘privilege premium’ for non-graduates means men from poorer backgrounds earn £80 a week less on average than similarly skilled workers with wealthier parents. For women it’s £100 a week. The routes into the workforce for them are so badly signposted that parental help and contacts bestow a sizeable advantage. They face a multiplicity of different qualifications and courses of very mixed value in the jobs market. That’s like having to choose between cluttered signs to 16,000 B roads instead of a few well-marked highways. No wonder so few reach the right destination.

Women, in particular, get lost in this non-graduate maze. The well-paid skilled worker jobs – electrician, plumber, long-distance lorry driver – are conventionally male with few female equivalents. New research carried out by the Resolution Foundation for the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission lays out the stark situation facing mid-skilled women. Around a sixth are not using the qualifications they have got and working in low-paid jobs like sales and customer services. A further fifth have low qualifications, are low paid, tend to have young kids and are on the margins of the jobs market. They are stuck in a twilight zone of constant insecurity, endemic low pay and little prospect for social advance. In modern Britain, there is a particular harsh penalty meted out to non-graduate women who take time out from work whilst their children are young. They find it much harder to re-enter well-paid work with decent chances to build a career. The government’s recent initiative in offering shared parental leave should help them. But much more needs to be done.

Apprenticeships are the government’s main vehicle for helping those not taking the university path. The ambition to increase apprenticeship numbers is welcome but the focus has to be on quality as well as quantity. There are too few higher and degree level apprenticeships. They lead to the best careers and wages. The planned apprenticeship levy should be used to rapidly expand their numbers and to spark a change in employer attitudes to non-graduates.

Next the maze of non-graduate choices should be simplified through better careers advice and the introduction of a UCAS-style system for vocational education. Finally, further education, ignored for too long by policy-makers, must be enhanced. It is welcome that the government has commissioned David Sainsbury to put forward a plan for doing so. The Prime Minister must take this forward as part of his Life Chances agenda. He should make it core to realising his vision for One Nation Conservatism.

Britain’s future economic prospects depend on getting the best out of all of our young people and giving them a fair chance to succeed. Today’s fast lane/slow lane system is not delivering. It is time to make sure that non-graduates have the same simple, clear and successful routes that university students currently enjoy. Then they really will be motoring.

An abridged version of this post originally appeared in The Times.