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Dr Zofia Bajorek

Unequal Opportunities – trying to balance apprenticeships and long-term health conditions

Authors: Dr Zofia Bajorek Researcher

16 March 2016

Apprenticeships provide a much needed opportunity to support young people to develop skills and build careers – but are those who could most benefit from them being locked out?

This week (14th-18th March 2016) is National Apprenticeship Week, where businesses are encouraged to take on, or take on more, apprentices.  This year’s theme is “an apprenticeship can take you anywhere”, with a particular focus on higher skills to show how young people, entrepreneurs and businesses can ‘rise to the top’ through traineeships and apprenticeships.   The apprenticeship scheme is at the heart of the government’s drive to equip young people with the necessary skills that employers need to grow and compete, as recent research has indicated that 61 per cent of managers felt that having the right staff, or having the employees with the right skills, was the most important factor in realising an organisations ambitions.  Additionally in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, the intention to create 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020 was announced.

But are apprenticeships really accessible for all, and will they solve the youth unemployment problem in the UK?

High levels of youth unemployment compared to adult population is an ongoing issue in the UK (as in many other countries), pre-dating the recession.  The unemployment rate for economically active (young people not in full-time education)16-24 year olds stood at 13.6 per cent in October 2015, more than double that of the adult population.  Changes in the labour market and the demand for skills have left young people who leave school with few formal qualifications disadvantaged.  However, for young people with chronic health conditions achieving a desired labour market can be even more challenging.

The 6th paper from our Health at Work Policy Unit focussed on policy interventions that support transitions between education and employment for those with chronic health conditions, to help reduce labour disadvantages.  Individuals who experience the onset of a chronic health condition in childhood are at risk of worse educational and vocational outcomes. Though a wide range of policies and services (e.g. vocational education, work experience, careers education and guidance) are available to help all young people transition from education to employment, they are not always effective for young people in good health, and do little  to address the greater challenges experienced by those with chronic conditions.

What are apprenticeships and how well are they working for young people?

Apprenticeships are full-time paid jobs which incorporate both on and off the job training, so young people are able to ‘earn while they learn’.  They are currently available for anyone aged 16 or over and can last between 12 months and 4 years.  Minimum standards for apprenticeships also include: having to be employed full-time, i.e. for 30 hours a week, including time spent training away from the workplace; spending at least 280 hours in guided learning during their apprenticeship; and, training so that apprentices reach Level 2 in English and Maths or Functional Skills.

For some young people, apprenticeships have been shown to have a significant positive impact on labour market prospects, as there is evidence to suggest that those who complete an apprenticeship are significantly more likely to be employed in the future compared to those who do not.  However, this is not the case for young people with chronic conditions, as despite an increase in the total number of apprenticeships between 2005/6to 2010/11, the proportion of young apprentices with a learning disability or other chronic condition dropped from 11.1 per cent to 8 per cent.  Apprenticeship completion rates are also low for those with mental health problems and/or emotional/behavioural difficulties.

There are currently no plans to evaluate the extent to which the proposed 3 million new apprenticeships will include young people with chronic conditions or even registered disabilities. This is in contrast to other protected characteristics, such as gender, which will be monitored.  Given the government’s pledge to halve the disability employment gap, then measuring the effect the new apprenticeships pledge has on employment outcomes for those with chronic conditions should be part of its assessment plan. Further, not measuring this reduces our ability to develop inclusive and accessible programmes. We know for example, that the current structure of apprenticeships could be a challenge for young people with chronic conditions, especially with the minimum standards meaning that they have to work full time.  Finally, those with chronic conditions who wish to undertake an apprenticeship may encounter further barriers resulting from the lack of awareness of the support services available (for example Access to Work) to help them manage their condition in the workplace.

What do we recommend?

We welcome the target to create 3 million additional apprenticeships by 2020, and the opportunity it will provide many. However, currently the opportunity is not equal.  We need to make sure that young people with chronic conditions are not missing out on the chance to gain much valued practical work experience and professional skills development.  Thus we recommend that:

  • Take-up and outcomes of apprenticeships by young people with chronic conditions should be monitored and evaluated, taking into account the destinations of such apprentices in the longer-term, to understand whether they are achieving comparable outcomes to their peers without health conditions.
  • Relevant government departments should co-ordinate a targeted information campaign on support services, aimed at education and National Careers Service Advisors, so that young people with chronic conditions receive the support they need to manage their condition in the workplace and can address some of the day-to-day barriers they face to working.
  • Finally, the proposed apprenticeship levy, which will be used to help fund the expansion in apprenticeship numbers, should be used to better encourage employers to take on apprentices with chronic conditions, supporting a more diverse group of young people to become apprentices.

So yes, let’s celebrate the apprenticeship initiative, but let’s also attempt to make the opportunities for apprenticeships equal for all.