Desperate to have something new to offer, David Cameron now promises 3 million more apprenticeships during the next Parliament. Estimated at £300 million per annum, these would come at the expense of further benefit cuts for families and unemployed young people. According to the Tories, reducing total benefit eligibility ‘within the first few days’ of a new government would save £135 million while another £120 million would be clawed back by withdrawing housing benefit for young people on Job Seekers Allowance. It goes without saying the cuts would worsen poverty levels and homelessness, but it’s unlikely that anywhere near this number of new apprenticeships would ever be created.
It’s true that approaching 2 million apprenticeships have been established in the current Parliament, but, particularly during the early years,the majority have been for adults, often existing employees who had been reclassified as apprentices in order to be eligible for government funds. In recent months, because of growing criticism, recruitment patterns have changed and for the first time young people now make up the majority of starts, but numbers have plummeted. In 2013-2014, there were less than 450 000 starts, 10% down on the previous year. Also, two-thirds continue to be at Intermediate/GCSE level, lasting a year, sometimes shorter – these won’t lead to the ‘well-paid jobs’ Cameron talks about.
Ironically a major drag on increasing apprenticeship numbers may come from the new methods of funding now being piloted by the Coalition. If implemented, the changes make employers directly responsible for apprenticeships, whereas in the current system private training agencies do much of the recruitment and then receive government funding for providing training and accreditation. While it is true that some apprenticeships have provided real opportunities, many have represented a Great Training Robbery allowing government agencies to meet targets and training companies to line their pockets. Placements have invariably been dead-end and youngsters ‘parked’ with employers on low wages; rather than making the transition to any proper employment.
Many smaller businesses will be reluctant to take on the increased burden of being directly responsible, yet the main issue continues to be whether employers really want apprentices at all; at least in the numbers that Cameron promises. With many skilled and ‘middling’ occupations disappearing, the majority of jobs created since the downturn have been either unskilled work at the lower end of the service sector, or enforced ‘self-employment’. Creating three million apprenticeships by 2020 would depend on the transformation of the UK’s low-skilled, casino driven economy. At the very least this would require a proper industrial strategy and huge levels of public investment. This is not what the two main parties in the general election are offering.