Are apprenticeships failing to connect with young people?

15 June 2015 -


The government plans to create millions of new apprenticeships by 2020 – but is the existing scheme too heavily skewed towards older workers who are already employed?

Jermaine Haughton

(Additional reporting: Matt Packer)

Ambitious government plans to create a further 3 million UK apprenticeships by 2020 have been unveiled today by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. According to BIS, the programme will be enshrined in the forthcoming Enterprise Bill, and set goals for public-sector bodies to ensure the target is met. At the same time, the Bill will provide legal protection for the term “apprenticeship” to prevent misuse by unscrupulous employers – much in the same way that “degree” is a protected term that only accredited education providers can use.

But despite that legislative push, the number of 17 to 18 year-olds who join apprenticeships is flatlining at about 5% – compared to almost 50% who go on to higher education – with employers reportedly complaining that too many applicants are just not good enough. Those concerns deepened last week, with research from think tank the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) identifying a number of faults in the current apprenticeship scheme, such as a lack of available courses across the country. Commissioned by the Local Government Association, the IPPR’s report found that vacancies are not keeping pace with demand – with last year’s 1.8m applications chasing around 166,000 slots advertised last year. The report also revealed that…

Since 2010, 42% of starts have been made by over-25s

In 2013/14, under-25s submitted 56% of apprenticeship applications, yet made just 27% of starts

Meanwhile, over-25s submitted just 7% of applications, yet made 37% of starts

At the same time, 67% of Level 2 or 3 apprentices were already employed at the firms where they were learning

The figures suggest that apprenticeships have become heavily skewed towards older workers – even as media worries persist over young people who are Not in Employment, Education or Training: the so-called “NEET” bracket. So, are apprenticeships really failing to connect with their traditional target audience of young people? Does it matter? And if it does, who needs to do something about it?

Insights asked a selection of business leaders and thinkers for their thoughts…

Ollie Sidwell, co-founder / director, RateMyApprenticeship

“As the UK’s voice for student apprenticeships, we’re shocked to see over-25s skewing the apprenticeship figures. Businesses should be opening doors to young people rather than manipulating their apprenticeship figures for business benefit. If they really want to step up their game, a quota on the number of under-25s on their programmes should be made. At RateMyApprenticeship, we ask students the questions that matter in relation to their career development. Businesses should be doing the same to encourage more young people on to their schemes to create a national army of apprentices to be proud of. The government’s announcement to legally protect the term will help – but more still needs to be done to highlight the options available to school leavers.”

Anne Carew, manager, Acuity Training

“There seems to be a lack of teaching students about what to expect when joining the world of work. For many [of our apprenticeship applicants], even the basics such as working to deadline, personal appearance and maintaining a good work ethos were sadly lacking. For those who showed more potential in these areas, they were unable to communicate effectively with other members of staff and customers, or even use Outlook to arrange calendars and meetings. In our opinion, schools are failing to prepare these students adequately, and explain the benefits of apprenticeships.”

Frances Dickens, CEO, Astus Group

“As someone who left school at 16 with few qualifications, and who now leads a multimillion-pound business, apprenticeships – particularly those focussed on digital skills – are close to my heart … I, for one, believe in giving people the chance to learn new skills and trades at all ages of life and, provided apprenticeship subsidies are not being misused, I don’t feel that apprenticeships should just be for younger people. However, in order to address the NEET problem specifically and encourage more young people into apprenticeships, I think there is a huge amount of work to be done at school level – both to incorporate vocational training more fully into the curriculum and to persuade secondary school children and their parents that apprenticeships are an acceptable life-choice. And we need to keep working hard to learn lessons from Germany where the best apprenticeships have a similar kudos to university degrees.”

Tony Robinson OBE, co-founder, Enterprise Rockers / author, Freedom From Bosses Forever

“I and many others have been labelling the UK’s apprenticeship scheme a disgraceful waste of taxpayers’ money for the past 10 years. This is because it has primarily been used as a large company-training subsidy for adult jobs they would fill even without apprentices. There has been a lot of press during those 10 years on how the apprenticeships system is abused – Morrisons (and other supermarkets), McDonalds (and other US chains), banks, power, BT all come to mind. The Doug Richard review on apprenticeships for the government took place in 2012 and we all contributed to it, but big companies continue to be the main beneficiaries. We’ve backed what Charlie Mullins OBE of Pimlico Plumbers has been saying and writing for many years. He said: ‘Stop giving kids Jobseekers allowance. Instead give the money to companies so they can take on apprenticeships. And I mean proper, old-fashioned apprenticeships lasting 3 to 4 years, so that when the young people have finished they are productive and capable.’”

Sir David Roberts McMurtry CBE, chairman and CEO, Renishaw Plc

“Lucy Ackland – who has just won the Women’s Engineering Society Prize at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Young Woman Engineer of the Year Awards – had to work hard to persuade her teachers that she wanted to leave school at 16 to become an apprentice at Renishaw. She went on to achieve a first-class honours engineering degree and has led a project team developing our next generation of metal 3D-printing machine. In theory, as a leading UK engineering firm, Renishaw should have been among the first whose recruitment suffered as a result of the skills gap. However the number of our apprentice and graduate applications has trebled in the past few years, as a direct result of our collaborations with schools, universities, STEM-based organisations, career advisors and government agencies.”

For more thoughts on this subject, sign up to this forthcoming CMI seminar.

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