In some respects, Boris Johnson’s promise of an apprenticeship to every young person is reminiscent of David Cameron’s pledge to create three million new apprenticeships over 5 years. In other respects the circumstances are quite different. Cameron apprenticeship promise was made in the run up to the 2015 election; but now the government is bracing itself for a wave of youth unemployment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis.
Johnson faces a bit ask. With only two million apprenticeship starts since May 2015, Cameron’s target has not been met. More significantly only a minority of these have been by under 19-year olds. Figures for the end of 2019 show they made up less than a third. Many employers have used apprenticeship funding for existing staff – in some cases to finance graduates on management training, but until quite recently, most starts have been at level 2 -equivalent to GCSE – a level that the majority of young people have already reached. The majority have also been in the business, health and care, or hospitality sectors – science, technology, engineering, and manufacturing (STEM) subjects represent just 1 in 3.
Neither do UK apprenticeships automatically lead to permanent employment and it is only recently, that off-the job training has been guaranteed. Neither are employers compelled to enrol apprentices, even those required to pay the employers ‘levy’ are not required to spend it. Apprenticeships have not provided an alternative to higher education – with many young people seeing there is no alternative to university, despite the fees.
Apprenticeships have taken a hammering as a result of the pandemic. As of early April, employers surveyed by the Sutton Trust reported that on average just 39% of apprenticeships were continuing as normal, with 36% having been furloughed, 17% of apprentices had their off-the job learning suspended and 8% made redundant. Around a third (31%) reported that they were likely to hire fewer apprentices over the coming year, or none at all. Firms worried about their ability to survive the crisis were more likely to say their apprentices were unlikely to resume, and more likely to cut future apprenticeship recruitment.
But with the furlough scheme being wound down, the apprenticeship announcement is rumoured to be part of a more general job creation scheme about to be announced by the Chancellor. We shall wait and see!