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Katy Jones
Katy  Jones

Apprenticeships and the youth labour market: gendered dimensions

Authors: Katy Jones Katy Jones

06 November 2013

Apprenticeships have been touted by government as a key mechanism to tackle the UK’s youth unemployment crisis. Through combining education and employment, apprenticeships should enable young people who do not choose academic pathways to make a smooth transition into the labour market equipped with the skills and experience prized by employers.

The headline apprenticeship figures show significant expansion over the last few years. However, the impact on the youth labour market has been minimal – in 2011 less than 6 per cent of 16-18 year olds were enrolled on an apprenticeship programme, and growth has been driven by those aged over 25. The current system is clearly not functioning well as a pathway into work for young people.

In our new report for the TUC – the Gender Jobs Split – we investigated how the expansion of apprenticeships has impacted differently on young men and women.

Take up of apprenticeship varies for young men and women - but for both apprenticeship starts have been increasing since 2002/03. For under 19s, fewer young women start apprenticeships than young men. This gap increased considerably between 2009/10 and 2011/12 and now stands at 13 per cent. This widening gap has largely been driven by increases in the number of young men under the age of 19 starting intermediate level (L2) apprenticeship (this is the lowest level).

For 19–24-year-olds the picture is slightly different. Here young women have overtaken young men in terms of apprenticeship starts, and this rise has been driven by substantial increases in young women taking up Advanced level apprenticeships. Overall, whilst there are still gaps in take up of young men and women, recent trends suggest that young women are beginning to perform slightly better when we consider starts and levels alone.

But starts and levels only tell us part of the story. What often matters more for labour market prospects are the sectors in which young people take up apprenticeships – and our report finds striking differences for young men and women.

We find that most young men and women selecting apprenticeships still follow traditional routes. Whilst there is some evidence of training for a less gendered labour market, e.g. a high proportion of both men and women take apprenticeships in customer service and retail, significant gender divisions persist. Men dominate traditionally ‘male’ apprenticeships in construction, vehicle maintenance, plumbing, and engineering, whilst women dominate apprenticeships in hairdressing, children’s care learning and development, beauty therapy, and health and social care. Young women tend to be overrepresented in apprenticeship sectors with lower pay and worse career progression.

The apprenticeship system mirrors and magnifies the gender segmentation that exists in the wider labour market. As the apprenticeship system is reformed and (hopefully) continues to expand, it is important the apprenticeship pathways young people choose to pursue are not constrained by factors including gender. To challenge this young people need both better information about the different returns and progression opportunities associated with pursuing particular apprenticeship pathways, and more and better opportunities to experience a range of career options. 

As part of the Missing Million Programme, The Work Foundation will soon publish a policy paper on the role of apprenticeships in tackling youth unemployment in a service economy.