Can an apprenticeship guarantee really tackle youth unemployment?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
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Everybody loves apprenticeships it seems, especially for other people’s children.  This is why, when faced with a problem in education and training, politicians can’t help promising more of them.  But are they really the answer to the looming crisis of youth unemployment?

Some appear to think so. Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Education Select Committee, has recently proposed an apprenticeship guarantee for all young people between the ages of 16 and 25.  And in a Downing Street briefing on the 3 June 2020, the Prime Minister appeared to endorse this proposal, saying  “We have to look after people across the board, but young people in particular I believe should be guaranteed an apprenticeship.”

Subsequently No.10 seems to have had a change of heart and the guarantee of an apprenticeship appears to have been diluted to the offer of an ‘opportunity’. “We will also offer an opportunity guarantee” said Boris Johnson on 3 July 2020, “so that every young person has the chance of an apprenticeship or an in-work placement.”  Halfon, however, seems still to be advocating the original proposal, while relying on others to tell him how it might work.

So why has Downing Street rowed back from a guaranteed apprenticeship?  It is because it has dawned on them that apprentices, by law, have to be employees.  The availability of apprenticeships depends on the actions of employers rather than on Whitehall. To put it bluntly, unless government takes on the role of employer of last resort for a cohort of seven million young people, it cannot honestly offer a guarantee; and that is not going to happen.

Furthermore, what are the chances of private employers, who are facing the worst recession in a generation, taking on and training extra thousands of young people while laying off existing staff?  It doesn’t add up.

Headline-grabbing announcements about apprenticeships are dangerous, particularly because they are not quite what people think.  The general public sees apprenticeships as a way of inducting young people into skilled employment. Asked to picture a typical apprentice, most people would think of a young engineer, carpenter or hairdresser learning a skilled trade on the job, with perhaps day release to a local college.  There are still apprenticeships like that, but many would be surprised to learn that almost 50 per cent of apprentices are over the age of 25 and that large numbers of apprenticeships are taken up not by new entrants, but existing older adult employees.   

The reason that so many apprentices are older workers is that they are now funded through a levy on large employers. Firms can only claim  back levy funding for apprentice training, so it  should be no surprise  that, according to Ofsted and others  many are rebadging degrees and in-house training programmes as apprenticeships.  Government is still debating whether to pull the plug on MBA apprenticeships which, at £18,000 each, are taking a large share of the levy budget and doing nothing at all to provide opportunities for the young.

Whether it is right that significant parts of the apprenticeship budget are spent on existing employees and senior managers depends on whether apprenticeships are seen as part of a productivity agenda or are focused instead on social inclusion.  The trouble is that government appears to want it both ways. They talk about apprenticeships in the language of inclusion but give practical control to employers who necessarily prioritise their business needs.  Thus, politicians regularly lament the loss of apprenticeship opportunities for young people, the disadvantaged and disabled people, while firmly maintaining the need for employers, who are focused on profitability, to be ‘in the driving seat’.

The constant focus on apprenticeships obscures the need for serious discussion about alternative education and training initiatives which are within government control, and which will be needed to tackle the coming crisis.  We have a network of further education (FE) colleges which could rise to the challenge of training unemployed school leavers, but they have been seriously underfunded for many years. Several are currently in receipt of emergency funding to stave off bankruptcy.

Our colleges are in this state in part because, astonishingly, government funding for students aged 16 and 17 is less than that for schoolchildren aged 11-15. This is reflected in the fact that the hours of tuition received by such students is far less than in other European countries  – 15 hours per week as opposed to 25 internationally, according to evidence provided to the Parliamentary Select Committee by the Sixth Form Colleges Association. Those young people who are not in higher education are being seriously short-changed.

Apprentices at Weston College, Somerset. Photo by Mick Fletcher

The need for an increased focus on FE has been the subject of recent government announcements, but perversely as a means of reducing the numbers going into HE  (higher education), rather than to provide for those who currently lack any quality provision. Quite why it makes sense, when faced with catastrophic levels of youth unemployment, to seek to dissuade some young people from investing in a degree and shielding themselves from the labour market for three years, is difficult to understand.  Why it makes sense to focus on alternative opportunities for those who already have them, rather than new opportunities for those who lack any, is also a mystery.

It is clear that the government could make a serious dent in the problem of youth unemployment by providing substantial investment in full-time college provision for those aged 16-24.  What is needed is the funding to provide more vocational courses equivalent to GCSE and A-level, together with maintenance support that allows young adults to live while studying.  Support to be able to live while continuing to study is already on offer for the 50 per cent of young people who achieve their A- levels or equivalent.  Why not ‘level up’ and make it available for the other half?