Deflating the apprenticeship bubble
Authors: The Work Foundation
14 February 2011
Apprenticeship week is over. The profile has been raised. Government and big firms have preened themselves on their commitment to apprentices. Just the minute then to deflate the app-bubble with a world-weary spike of scepticism.
Of course the government is doing the right thing in putting apprenticeships centre stage in vocational skills. But it is in some danger of over-selling one of its few economic good news stories.
The shift to apprenticeship is taking place against the background of a sharp reduction in overall learning due to the cuts. The Skills Funding Agency has 3.4 million learners on its books now. By 2013 that will be down to 2.9 million .That’s half a million fewer learners in the 'knowledge based' economy.
Figures of £1.4 billion investment and 75,000 additional apprenticeship places sound impressive: about 354,000 people will begin an apprenticeship this year compared with 279,000 last year. But apprenticeship is a bigger slice of a cake that has shrunk by a quarter.
True, some learning programmes being chopped or trimmed to make way for apprenticeship were of dubious economic value . But as the government recognises, the quality of apprenticeships is mixed.
Currently, the success rate on apprenticeships appears to be lower than other types of vocational skills training at 73 per cent – itself a significant improvement from a decade ago.
In the UK, apprenticeships last between one and two years, compared with a norm of three years or longer in countries such as Australia, Germany and Austria.
Another central difference with other countries is employer attitudes. Just 8 per cent of UK employers offer them, compared with a third in Australia – among the lowest in the developed world. Demand greatly outweighs supply. Among big firms of 500 plus people, pretty well all employers offer apprenticeships in Germany. In England, 30 per cent of such businesses do.
The rebuilding of apprenticeship began in 1994, expanded under Labour and is being grown further by the Coalition. Yet the hopes invested in apprenticeship need to be placed in the context of the low base from which we begin.
According to a valuable study by the Centre for Economic Performance for the Apprenticeship Ambassadors’ Network, using 2009 data, just 11 in every thousand UK workers went into apprenticeship, compared with 43 in Switzerland, 40 in Germany, 39 in Australia, 33 in Austria and 17 in France.
So does the expansion of apprenticeship mark a contribution to the famed 'rebalancing' of the economy towards flinty craft trades in the Rolls Royces and BAE Systems of this world and away from financial services, public services and sales type roles?
Well, only to an extent. A look at the trades where apprentices went in 2007-8 in the CEP report suggests care, retail, hairdressing, admin and customer services are rather better represented than the (more expensive) mechanics, builders and engineers. Another reminder, as if any were needed, that while the narrative can be addressed relatively easily, the issues of industrial structure and historic neglect are a bigger project altogether.
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