New pipelines of talent, strong completion and retention rates and a diverse workforce are all benefits to industry of degree-level apprenticeships, experts said at a recent Ai Group webinar.  

And, for students, the earn-as-you-learn model means no ‘placement poverty’. 

Degree apprenticeships combine structured on-the job training, mentoring and supervision with degree-level study, allowing students to develop advanced skills in a range of areas — while getting paid. 

“This qualification provides a solution to two common problems,” webinar host and Ai Group Centre for Education and Training Executive Director Megan Lilly said. 

“Often, university graduates are not job-ready when they start work. 

“They might have good technical skills, but they need to learn work skills before they're productive. That's something employers talk a lot about. 

“We also hear how competitive it is to find graduates and interns — finding the right person for the right type of job.  

“Ai Group's interest in degree apprenticeships has developed from feedback we've had from members for many years.”  

In its Clean Energy Generation: Workforce Needs for Net Zero Economy paper last year, Jobs and Skills Australia identified the initial need for between 26,000 and 42,000 more electricians in the next seven years, with more over the period to 2050.  

“Clearly, we need a huge number of skilled people in the electrical industry,” Ms Lilly said. 

“Work-integrated learning was a strong feature of the recently released Universities Accord Review Panel’s Final Report and within that, degree apprentices were noted as being critical to innovative delivery models, to be expanded and rolled out in a range of fields around the country. 

“There’s a huge amount of energy and attention in this space and a lot of work is going on.” 

Employment-based formal learning model 

A person undertaking a degree apprenticeship has a contract of employment and at the same time, is formally enrolled in a qualification. 

“The learning and work happen concurrently and cross over,” Ms Lilly said. 

“The employee can directly apply to their work what they learn at university which is a huge value, particularly in digital and tech areas. 

“By the time they graduate, they will have years of experience under their belt, having already built up a significant body of expertise and proficiency from working alongside experts in the field. 

“This gives them a head start over traditional university graduates. 

“And, of course, they earn while they learn which is enormously valuable, particularly to those who may not otherwise be able to afford to study full-time. 

“It’s a win-win – a paid placement and relevance.” 

Diverse workforce 

Employers also benefit from the earn-and-learn model because it can help broaden the demographics of the professional workforce by attracting those from low socioeconomic backgrounds and more women, too. 

“It’s a viable alternative for low socioeconomic individuals in Australia who might struggle to sustain their lives as full-time students,” Ms Lilly said. 

More than 30 per cent of participants in BAE Systems’ apprentice programs in the UK are female and 27 per cent come from disadvantaged backgrounds, webinar panellist Georgette Elston, of BAE Systems Australia, said. 

Fellow panellist Kirsty Bateman, of Babcock International, said: “For me, the reason for starting to even look at degree apprenticeships was that we have a very small pool of engineers in Australia. Not everybody wants to do a degree full time.  

“Many people who finish Year 12 want to work and be educated at the same time, but their options are either a full-time degree or doing something else. 

“Degree apprenticeships allow us to bring in people who are from different areas and have different skills backgrounds. It allows us to have a more diverse pipeline.” 

Federation University Australia (Federation) has developed an Electrical Dual Qualification combining the A Grade Electrotechnology Apprenticeship and the Bachelor of Electrical Engineering degree. 

Federation’s Executive Dean, Iven Mareels, said: “I’m looking forward to having a different set of students who are going to be highly motivated, given they’ll be working with their employer.  

“I'm hoping women will be interested because they will learn two sets of skills that are more aligned. The proof will be in the pudding when we start in May.” 

Work ready 

The degree apprenticeship model also allows employers to hire students directly from high school, giving the employer a head start over companies that start looking for people part-way through a traditional degree. 

“By the time participants are in their third year (of a degree apprenticeship), they're productive members of our workforce,” Ms Elston said.  

“It’s not like they're a student doing work experience; we charge them up to the customer. They’re paid employees doing proper work in the business.” 

Ai Group pilots 

Ai Group has four degree-level apprenticeships under development:  

  • Queensland – Electrical Dual Qualification 
  • South Australia – Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship 
  • Victoria – Electrical Dual Qualification 
  • Victoria – Systems Engineering Apprenticeship 

“With our pilots, we have looked to develop an employment contract that replicates what would normally appear in a regulated training contract, giving the apprentice work related to their qualification and allowing them to attend class while receiving appropriate supervision, mentoring and on-the-job training,” Ms Lilly said. 

“Collaboration between industry, universities and other key stakeholders is essential, and we need to make the navigation experience for the individual fairly seamless. 

“Everyone needs to work together to participate in common problem solving for a mutually beneficial outcome.” 

BAE Systems, Babcock International and Federation University of Australia are all key stakeholders of Ai Group’s pilot programs. 

Strong completion and retention 

BAE Systems has been using degree apprenticeships in the UK since 2016.  

“It started in our nuclear business, where we needed to build technical skills into engineering degrees,” Ms Elston said. 

“Today, the UK business has more than 25 different standards in degree apprenticeships as part of a broader suite of about 50 different apprenticeships across the whole spectrum. 

“Completion rates for all our apprentices in the UK are 95 per cent and retention rates are also very high. 

“We expect similar success from the programs in Australia. 

“So, when this first batch of degree apprenticeships takes off, students will have four to five years’ work experience under their belt, plus a qualification in an area facing a skill shortage — not just to us, but to a whole bunch of other companies which will make them very attractive.” 

Ms Bateman reported similar success at Babcock. 

“The retention rates certainly are far higher in comparison to what we get from university-only graduates who then require two years of on-the-job training and time learning what the business looks like,” she said. 

“The retention rates that follow apprenticeship degrees are massive, and we end up with people more likely to stay in the business they’ve started in.” 

Delivery model challenges  

Much change is needed from universities to adapt to the degree apprenticeship model. 

“Universities deliver training in a vastly different way to how TAFEs train apprentices,” Ms Lilly said. 

“The normal TAFE model will have apprentices work for four days and attend TAFE one day a week, or they might use a block model where they go for a week each month. 

“The university model is based around lectures, tutorials, lab work and the like over five days a week, with long holidays in between.” 

It’s a challenge Federation is navigating. 

“We’re moving into an environment where every degree we offer will be in the apprenticeship mode to some extent, because we're going to ask our students to be employed in a relevant area for at least a semester during their studies,” Mr Mareels said. 

“For the dual degree, we went a step further. We envisage the calendar year to be in sync with the classic apprenticeship, with the whole curriculum based around week-long releases. 

“Without thoughtful integration, students are in for eight years of study which makes it unsurprising that there are less than a handful of people who have these dual qualifications in Australia.” 

Fear of the unknown 

Some employers are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach before jumping on board, Ms Elston said. 

“The Software Engineering Degree Apprenticeship in South Australia has had a high level of interest from employers, but when it was time to lock in a cohort and numbers, most stepped back and said: ‘We want to be part of the second cohort’, which seems to be a common Australian attitude,” she said. 

“There’s a hang-up about the term ‘degree apprenticeship’ because it’s an unknown product in market.  

“Many employers don’t have systems and practices set up, although we have been sharing our framework documents, guides and internal policies. 

“However, students get it. They understand they are going to uni and getting paid to apply their knowledge and will have secure employment throughout.” 

Ms Bateman agrees it is important to support employers as they get used to the idea of degree apprenticeships. 

“It’s not just taking students on the journey; employers need support to get to where we need to be,” she said. 

“When we're planning these new models, we need to give employers enough time to embrace this new way of working.” 

Smoothing out start-up issues 

“The other challenge came with setting up three processes at once,” Ms Elston said. 

“The Government was setting up the university contractor training, the university was setting up enrolments, and we were setting up employment and onboarding processes concurrently.  

“There was some overlap which meant that sometimes, the applicants and candidates were receiving information from the university about enrolment which really should follow employment offers and should come through us in the first instance.  

“That was a little messy. Considerations like logical communication and honouring the fact they are employees first and then students is important as we move to mainstream the model.” 

Ms Bateman spoke of the “long journey getting to where we are with our Systems Engineering course in Victoria”. 

“It was a challenge to determine how the VET and Higher Education systems would work together,” she said. 

“So, the journey to get from a blank paper to where we sit today on these issues — such as seeing the universities working out that we are employing the candidates first — has been challenging, but exciting. 

“As employers, we want this to work. We want graduates to be degree-qualified, as this is the way education and the legislation are going. We need them to go on that journey.” 

IR issues 

Pay rates are another challenge. 

“Some awards are fairly straightforward; for example, the Manufacturing Award contains a rate for trainee engineers, but others are more complex or silent,” Ms Lilly said. 

“As another example, graduate software engineers are covered by the Professional Employees Award, but it only applies after they graduate. 

“We need to consider the issues around undergraduates and the like. 

“Ai Group has been working closely with our IR experts and workplace lawyers to navigate some of the issues with employers and their HR departments.” 

Finding the right balance 

“Getting the balance between work and training is another important challenge,” Ms Lilly said. 

Mr Mareels added: “There is an interesting conundrum between being an employee and a student at the same time. 

“It’s important to have lots of conversations with industry to understand what their requirements are.  

“There are lots of roundtables and discussions around what the expectation is. What does it mean to be work ready? What minimum standard is required? 

“We have a duty of care from a university point of view and a duty of care from an employment point of view which are not mutually exclusive. 

“Understanding what each other's roles are in that space is vital and non-trivial.  

“It involves thinking about what support can the university provide to an employee in the company and vice versa? What does HR in the company do for a student at university?  

“Where are the boundaries? How does it all work? Those things we have to work through. 

“With regards to curriculum, what is the role of the employer? Ideally, we need to get industry involved in curriculum design as much as possible so it’s up to date. 

“To what extent can an academic learning experience be designed from the employment point of view, and how can they be verified?  

“These are the types of conversations we have to have. By and large, employers are open and willing because there is such a talent shortage. 

“We're all in this together.” 

Success looks like . . . 

The panellists are united in their high hopes for degree apprenticeships. 

Ms Elston said: “For me, success is that in five years’ time, a degree apprenticeship will be an easy option for companies to consider. 

“Our first cohort will have graduated, we will have nailed the issues that need to be sorted in both the employment and university settings, and we’ll have more universities interested in changing their model. 

“The Universities Accord is going to fundamentally change the interest of universities in delivering these sorts of models.” 

Ms Bateman hopes to see parents, students and schools talking about a degree apprenticeship as a viable pathway to becoming a degree-qualified engineer. 

“Success means this model is part of normal business, and we’ve got diversity coming through.” 

Mr Mareels agrees. 

“I really believe high schools should be aspiring to offer their students degree apprenticeships as an alternative path to success, and the more universities that participate, the better.” 

For Ms Lilly, “success would mean excellent provision, great partnerships and no longer talking about piloting”. 

“It would be celebrating graduates across multiple industry sectors and celebrating different qualifications as equally as we celebrate graduates who come out of a university pathway,” she said. 

“We’re on the right track. Enrolments are happening, students are in place, and they're employed and commencing their studies at university as well as their work.  

“These are exciting times.” 

Click here for information and to register for the next CET webinar, VET and Higher Education collaboration: maximising the opportunity, on Friday, March 22. 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is Communications Manager at the Australian Industry Group. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, the News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.