As the government desperately attempts to close the floodgates on youth unemployment, the focus of many commentators has been on innovative new schemes to help members of the ‘lost generation’ on to the jobs ladder. As a result, the failings of older policy initiatives have gone somewhat unnoticed and the shortcomings of existing schemes unscrutinised.
Nowhere else is this more true than in the case of apprenticeships. This particular institution has an impressive lineage, dating back to the late 16th century, and in its modern incarnation has achieved record participation levels and satisfaction scores. However, like many British institutions, apprenticeship programmes are crumbling around the edges somewhat and struggling to remain relevant in the midst of a changing economy.
At a time when they should be harnessed as a weapon in the fight against youth unemployment, evidence shows that apprenticeships are instead being utilised to make up for the shortfall in training provided by a vast swathe of British firms. The Richards Report on apprenticeships, due to be published this autumn, has already examined background evidence which shows that 70% of positions are taken up by people already in employment. This means that only 3 in 10 apprentices were not already in work when they signed up to the programme (perhaps even less than this, as some apprentices may have worked in different sectors before joining the scheme).
Furthermore, the report revealed that those apprenticeships offered to new recruits are predominantly those in sectors where there is a long tradition of vocational training, like construction and engineering. It remains difficult for young people out of work to secure apprenticeships in areas like business administration, children’s care, health care, and team management.
What seems to be happening in the private sector is that firms are hijacking apprenticeships in order to provide the training to existing staff they can’t- or won’t- pay for themselves. Yes, it is true that apprenticeships were designed to cater for both new and existing employees, but the current imbalance suggests employers are using the access to central funding to get staff training on the cheap.
Turning to the Richards Report again, it is telling that in a EU-wide comparative survey of employer investment in training as a proportion of labour costs, the UK ranks a poor 20th out of 27- behind Poland and Estonia. As a country, we just do not put a high enough value on training. As a result, the funds reserved for apprenticeships get sucked into the existing workforce and leave little left over for those million unemployed youths struggling to get into the market.
Yet apprenticeships have been proven to unlock the potential of young workers by improving their career prospects and providing them with genuine training opportunities. Almost 9 in 10 apprentices proclaimed themselves satisfied with their experience, and a massive 81% stated that enrolling on an apprenticeship scheme had improved their overall career prospects. Meanwhile, Richards revealed that individuals with an advanced apprenticeship earned on average 22% more than those with Level 2 qualifications such as NVQs and BTECs.
In order to maximise the impact apprenticeships can have on the young unemployed, the government needs to look critically at the programme design and expand it further into the private sector while rolling it out aggressively across the public sector. Lord Adonis recently exposed Whitehall’s duplicitous attitude to apprenticeships, extolling their virtues in public while hiring very few apprentices behind the scenes. In the very department where apprenticeship policy is formulated, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Adonis revealed that only 19 people are employed as apprentices out of a staff of 2,500.
Government departments should be mandated to employ a strict quota of new recruits as apprentices in order to show their faith in the scheme and endow apprenticeships with the aura of quality and prestige they desperately need to compete with Higher Education as a route into work. In addition, apprenticeships in the private sector should be more closely tailored to cater for 16-19 year-old NEETs by adding funding incentives to employers who enrol new recruits and by making it a statutory requirement for all large firms to take on a specified number of apprentices per year.
Employers need some tough love when it comes to apprenticeship policy. The evidence shows that individuals who complete their programmes make a workforce more productive, more motivated, and more satisfied. They add value to an employer that far outstrips the initial investment in their training. Policy now needs to be refined to give more young people the chance to prove their worth in this way, and prove that apprenticeships can be a potent cure to the epidemic of youth unemployment.
Louie Woodall is Assistant Editor of the Young Fabians Blog