Having largely disappeared by the end of the 1980s, apprenticeships have been reinvented in response to high levels of youth unemployment and as an alternative avenue for thousands of young people who don’t think there’s any option but to apply to university -proponents of apprenticeships also arguing that there is a potential shortage of ‘intermediate’ or ‘technical’ skills.
Official data shows however that the majority of apprenticeship vacancies are still only at Intermediate level (GCSE equivalent) – an educational standard that most young people have already reached. These generally last for no more than a year, do not guarantee any automatic progression to Advanced level, or lead to a definite job. Now, new Higher level apprenticeships have been established but with only a few hundred school leavers able to start these last year, it’s far too early to consider them as university alternatives.
The UK apprenticeship system is very different to that in Germany, for example, where apprenticeships are a right to all young people, are at least level 3 and in 90% of cases still lead to employment. German apprenticeships are also based on a ‘dual system’ whereby as well as training ‘on the job’ apprentices must spend a specific amount of time completing workplace training, but also technical education courses in the classroom. In comparison UK apprenticeship ‘training’ can be limited to a few hours each week.
While government and reformers rightly call for both the expansion and the upgrading of apprenticeships, the key question is how many employers really need them, or whether they’ve been sold them by private training providers who are then eligible to reclaim the costs from government. There is clear evidence that some employers have regraded existing trainees as ‘apprentices’ to access funds, just over half of all apprentices are under 25.
For example 80% of the jobs created ‘post-crash’ have been low skilled and the use of zero-hours contracts continues to grow. Over recent years, many ‘middle’ jobs have also disappeared –the result of increased use of information technology and wider restructuring. With only a small minority of employers recruiting school leavers directly, it’s unlikely then, that apprenticeships will either upskill young people or reduce youth unemployment significantly. Other job creation policies are needed.