Apprenticeships: still not a real alternative for young people.

Some eight years after David Cameron  promised 3 million more, apprenticeships have failed to provide real opportunities for all but a few of those young people not able to or not wanting to continue to higher education. This, rather than a ‘skills crisis’ is the real reason for the introduction of yet another full-time vocational qualification (the T-level) in schools and colleges. One great training robbery is simply being replaced by another!

After a period of continued growth, reaching over 500 000 starts in 2011/12,  during the period Aug 2021 to Jan 2022, there were just over 200 000. Though there has been some increase post-pandemic, this is unlikely to reverse the general trend.  Dropout rates remain much higher than with other qualifications. Starts in sectors like engineering and construction, have continued to represent a small minority – the largest being in business areas and health & social care.

Criticism has centred on the design and content of apprenticeship qualifications – though new employer designed specifications have now been introduced. The low status of vocational education and training compared to academic learning, in this country, has also been cited. Funding has been misused. Rather than recruiting new younger workers, employers have enrolled existing staff on low level schemes which have in many cases have merely ‘certified’ what they already do. There have been instances of workers not knowing they are apprentices and employers renaming other kinds of training to access funds.

At the other extreme, funds have been allocated to management trainees on MBAs – up to £45m of funding during the last two years has been spent on employees studying for MBAs. Thus, unlike lower level apprenticeships, Highers have continued to expand; but only a minority of them have been started by school leavers. 60% of those starting degree level schemes were by those over 25 – two-thirds having already worked for their employer for over a year.

Meanwhile, young people under 19 continue to be massively under represented, or enrolled at level 2, equal to GCSE, (a level many have already attained) without any guaranteed progression, doing little to build skills or increase employment chances and making it possible for them to be replaced by another apprentice, when their programme ends.

But the failure of apprenticeships is as much the consequence of a ‘free market’ approach to the economy and the labour market. While schemes are organised and have to be approved nationally by the Institute of Apprentices and though employers must pay a minimum wage, guarantee 20% of apprenticeship time to offsite training with very large employers required to pay a ‘levy’ (only around 2% fit this category) nobody is required to employ an apprentice, but if they can be persuaded to, they can hire their own private training provider rather than an FE college.

The approach in this country (arrangements are slightly different in Scotland) stands in marked contrast to elsewhere, particularly Germany where, despite major economic and occupational changes and the decline of many ‘intermediate’ jobs which apprenticeships have been associated with, apprenticeships remain central to the lives of young people and rather than being ‘job specific’, serve as a ‘licence to practice’ many occupations.

Though German vocational and technical education is considered to be of much higher quality than in this country, more important is the ‘social partnership’ between employers, trade unions and local state institutions. In Germany, apprenticeships are not only seen as a rite of passage – part of a young person’s education.

Employers (all but the smallest businesses are expected to employ apprentices) are encouraged to see themselves as educators and to think long-term. As a result there were over 1 million young people on apprenticeships at the end of 2019. A consequence of this is that fewer take the university route.

David Blunkett’s recent ‘Skills Review’ recommends some changes to apprenticeships. For example, improving progression beyond level 2 (for many, training stops here), broadening and making levy funds more transferable, allowing smaller businesses to ‘share’ apprentices and improving careers advice. But these are hardly earth shattering.

Despite what it might say, Labour can’t move towards a German style approach, let alone any employment guarantee for young people, without having a more interventionist approach to the economy (and  a different approach to public spending).  This would involve trade unions, employers and government agencies conducting proper skills audits. Central to this would be developing a training plan to support a Green New Deal – not mentioned in Blunkett’s document.

Without this, in this country, because of the lack of any real alternative, thousands of young people think they have to no option but to continue in full-time (academic) education for as long as possible, at great expense. With attending university becoming the norm, degrees become essential to get more and more jobs though invariably not always to do them.


3 thoughts on “Apprenticeships: still not a real alternative for young people.

  1. The big contextual differences between Scotland and England are 1) the existence of a national skills service – Skills Development Scotland, staffed by well-qualified advisory staff; and 2) the better progression routes to vocational HE via the FE college system, where one third of all HE students now study, working towards HNC and HND qualifications locally but with progression opportunities to (some) university degrees without loss of time. (University degrees being 4 years, of course, and following only 6 years of school education – compared with the more entrenched 7+3 or 5+2+3 English dominated system elsewhere in the UK that actually helps reinforce academic emphasis with big middle class pressure for ‘Two Year Sixth Form’ education that weakens the whole system).

    But the big constraint on significant progress in VET in Scotland, however, is that employment law is not devolved yet (it was blocked by the Labour Party of all people in the post-referendum Smith Commission and is still opposed by Starmer), and that taxation incentives for companies to invest more in VET are largely set and controlled by Westminster. (It would be interesting to know more about how the local state governments/Lander in Germany are involved in employment-led VET btw).

    The SNP are re-raising the devolution of employment law in the light of the Tories’ forthcoming anti-strike legislation this week, but once again Labour is holding out for a unitary/centralised state approach despite significantly different education systems and economic priorities. It is no wonder that among all groups in the workforce and in the education system there is majority support for independence asap, with only the Empire/Great Britain nostalgia of those in the declining retired category with no interest in education/VET tilting the balance towards continuing union with England.

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