Apprenticeships: are they making a difference?

Two key things happened in the jobs market towards the end of last year. In November, youth unemployment topped the landmark figure of 1 million; and around the same time, the Government announced it would boost spending on apprenticeships by £250m as part of a wider £1bn youth unemployment package.

During 2011, the Government spent a total of £1.4bn to create 450,000 apprenticeships, a 63% rise on the previous year.

It would be cynical to suggest that the huge fanfare surrounding Government investment in apprenticeships was created to divert attention from the fact that almost 22% of young people were out of work. But the programmes themselves deserve further analysis, given the rising cost of tuition fees and the continued struggle for young people to find work.

The latest set of employment figures from the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds has fallen by around 9,000, but is still just over a million.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which runs the National Apprenticeship Scheme, has boasted a huge rise in people starting apprenticeship schemes. The total number starting an apprenticeship in the 2010/2011 measurement period was 325,000 – almost double what it was for the previous year (162,900). In previous years, the number of new starters had been rising steadily, but at a much smaller rate of between 15 and 20%.

Looking closer at apprenticeships

On paper, this looks like a policy win for the coalition. But look deeper and – in terms of tackling youth unemployment at least – there are a few issues:

  • Of the 665,900 people in apprenticeships, more than a quarter (27.2%) are aged between 25 and 49, the majority are aged 19-24 (37.8%), while 30.5% are under 19. This means a huge proportion of apprenticeships are filled by older workers, rather than school-leavers.
  • A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research found vast differences in quality of apprenticeships, depending on the industry and employer offering them:  some schemes lasted as little as 12 weeks (BIS has since recommended that all apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds last at least a year).
  • If 455,000 young people are in apprenticeships, that roughly equates to just under half of those 16 to 24-year-olds who are out of work – so where are the rest?

Part of the problem is that developing and offering apprenticeships can be a bureaucratic nightmare for employers, although the Government is now tackling that by reducing some of the red tape.

Currently, employers must access funding for apprenticeships via training providers (unless you can offer more than a certain number), meaning they have less control over the process.

Last year, a report by the CIPD found that nearly half of employers had not employed an apprentice for three years, with many believing them to be ‘inappropriate for their organisation’.

What’s more, a recent investigation by BBC’s Panorama programme found that, in the rush to meet the government’s apprenticeship targets, further education colleges were often subcontracting apprenticeship training to private companies. To boost the numbers of people who had completed apprenticeships, some providers were rushing through the training in a matter of weeks. Compare that to a ‘traditional’ apprenticeship in a highly skilled area such as engineering, which could last three or four years.

Communicating the schemes

And while the growth in numbers starting apprenticeships is encouraging, improving communication about the schemes to young people would boost this even further. Sixteen to 24-year-olds often access different channels to look for work than graduates, such as social media or smart phones. The decline of careers advisors in schools also robs employers of a potential channel to market their vacancies.

Ann Brown, UK HR director at IT consulting firm Capgemini, resorted to asking staff to tell their family and friends about the company’s apprenticeship scheme. She says: “We found we couldn’t apply the same principles to getting apprentices as we might to a graduate recruitment programme. To be honest, we haven’t had enough people apply, and it’s a great scheme which could lead to you getting a degree.”

Clearly there is a gap here: the Government is investing vast sums in developing apprenticeships as a viable alternative to university, but are enough young people getting the message?

The Higher Apprenticeship Fund, for example, aims to offer thousands of apprenticeships up to degree equivalent, giving young people the chance to earn a living while they learn a trade, rather than racking up a heap of student debt.

There also needs to be greater clarity about the benefits of apprenticeships to employers, and how they reach out to a new breed of skilled staff that they can nurture themselves. As youth unemployment refuses to dip below that landmark 1 million mark, the hype around apprenticeships has, so far, failed to deliver on its grand promise.


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