Employer engagement is key to a successful apprenticeship system, but we must not forget apprentices themselves
Authors: Katy Jones
18 March 2013
Last week saw the sixth annual National Apprenticeship Week (NAW2013). During that time, apprentices, business, unions, third sector organisations and the government have come together to celebrate successes and highlight the value that apprenticeships can bring to individuals, employers and the economy. With the publication of the government’s response to last year’s Richard Review and the launch of their consultation on reforms going forward, it is vital that this interest and momentum is built upon, as we figure out where to go from here.
NAW2013 has reaffirmed Doug Richard’s sentiment that ‘apprenticeships, or at least the notion of them, are popular’. But apprenticeships don’t function as well as they should, and vocational pathways into work continue to come second place to academic routes. Our research has highlighted some of their limitations which are particularly clear in an international context. Hearing from apprentices themselves this week, it’s clear that many ‘end up’ on an apprenticeship, after being funnelled through an academic system which is not right for them. This needs to be addressed as the system is reformed.
The government is right to ‘put employers in the driving seat’ in attempts to improve the apprenticeship system. Central to its success will be the delivery of a skilled workforce which matches employer needs but the needs of apprentices themselves must not be overlooked. Young people in particular need to see apprenticeships as a worthwhile route into the labour market. For this to happen they need more knowledge and awareness of the apprenticeship pathway, and the quality of education it offers must be broadened and improved.
There’s still a long way to go to increase the demand for apprenticeships amongst young people. Growth in apprenticeship numbers has been driven by those aged over 25, suggesting that young people either don’t know enough about them or don't view them as a worthwhile route from school to work.
Apprenticeship starts by age group (all levels, 2007/08-2011/12)
Source: The Data Service
Key to boosting apprentice demand is to ensure that the careers advice and guidance on offer is much better. Young people need accurate information- not just about what apprenticeships are available, but about the opportunities they can lead to and wage returns associated with different levels and sectors. Along with stronger support through mentoring and addressing other barriers to participation, this could also help to address stark differences in take up of apprenticeships according to gender, ethnicity, and disability. The National Apprenticeship Service is working with schools to promote apprenticeships but it’s not clear how effective this will be given a “worrying deterioration” in careers guidance highlighted by the Education Select Committee earlier this year. Government needs to take substantial action to turn this around.
More fundamental to ensuring that the system as a whole serves apprentices well is to improve the educational offer. More successful apprenticeship systems e.g. in Germany, provide at least 12 hours’ off-the-job teaching per week- involving both vocational and more general areas of study (e.g. languages, business studies, citizenship). In contrast, our apprentices typically complete one day a month of off-the-job learning and the educational content is often poor. The government’s renewed emphasis on English and Maths is important as these skills provide a solid basis for development and further progression, but we need a much more substantial, off-the-job component which provides a broad basis and develops transferable skills.
The government’s response to the Richard Review asks more questions than it answers - this call to consultation may be seen as a positive step towards a more responsive apprenticeship system tailored to the needs of our economy, but it is vital that the system works well for all involved. Employer engagement is key to a successful apprenticeship system, but apprentices themselves must not be forgotten.
The Work Foundation will continue to investigate the role of apprenticeships in tackling the UK’s youth unemployment crisis as part of its Missing Million programme. Research on apprenticeships and gender and the youth labour market will be published later in the year.
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